The technology that brought us Airbnb and Uber can do so much more. From Grist.com, By Amelia Urry, 7 April 2017
There’s a problem with the sharing economy, says Julian Agyeman, an urban studies and environmental policy scholar at Tufts University. “While useful in some ways,” he says, “the concept of a ‘sharing economy’ limits this very human value — sharing — to an economic transaction.”
That’s the thesis of Agyeman’s most recent book, Sharing Cities, cowritten with environmental scholar Duncan McLaren. In the book, the two authors make the case for technology as a tool to transform cities into more equitable and more sustainable places — if applied correctly. But when smart-city programs aren’t designed to correct social inequality, Agyeman says, they end up furthering it. Take San Francisco, the de facto sharing-economy headquarters, where skyrocketing rents have made the city “unaffordable for all but the wealthiest.”
Agyeman wasn’t always focused on issues of justice. As an undergraduate, he studied botany and geography. But his interests shifted when he moved to London in the mid ’80s. “I realized that environment — even landscape — is not apolitical,” he says. “Landscapes are both real and socially constructed.”
So Agyeman turned to urban policy — how cities are formed, who has the power to shape them, and how they make up a greater human landscape. At the bottom of it all lies a question of human agency: It’s one thing to discuss ideologies and policies that guide growth, but how do the changes that transform a city actually take place?
“The sharing-cities concept offers a radically different vision of what the city can be,” says Agyeman. He holds up Medellin, Colombia, and Seoul, South Korea, as examples of what happens when public officials make a true commitment to a sharing vision, from more accessible urban spaces to smart, tech-informed public transit that serves all its citizens.
In a conversation with Grist, he explained how that concept could redefine our idea of what makes a city truly smart. (This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Q. In the introduction to this book, you write that sharing is an inherent human trait — but isn’t there evidence that suggests humans are naturally selfish?
A. When we evolved as a species on the savannas of Africa, you couldn’t survive unless you cooperated and shared resources with bands of other pre-humans, and then humans. There has been a lot of study of people’s level of satisfaction with sharing — it makes people feel good. What’s probably happened is that, as societies became more complex, some of the more basic traits were overtaken by others, like selfishness and competition.
Q. How do most of us imagine “sharing” in cities today, and how is the Sharing Cities vision different?
A. We need to reinvent and recreate the urban commons as a place where humans interact in a much more relational way, not just in a transactional way. In a sense, what we’re saying is we want to move from the sharing economy to understanding whole cities as shared spaces. Modern technology gives us a kind of intersection of urban spaces and cyberspace, which we think could be a platform for a much more inclusive and efficient society.
Q. What are the opportunities — and pitfalls — to look out for as technology revolutionizes the way cities work?
A. A lot of people see this idea of the “smart city” as just the city that is wired for automation and efficiency. But we’re saying it’s only “smart” if it harnesses the capabilities and aspirations of the citizens. It’s not smart if it just sits there controlling traffic lights and streetcars. There’s a very great need to see technology as something in the service of solidarity and social justice.
Q. How can we direct technological innovation to be more people-focused?
A. If you don’t build a scheme from the get-go with equity and social justice in mind, it won’t simply happen. Let me give you an example. I was called up by people who run a bike-share scheme about a year ago. They said, it’s wildly successful, but here’s the problem: Very few low-income or minority people are riding our bikes.
My reaction was: On what basis is your scheme successful, if that’s the case? Did you involve any person from a low-income or minority group in the envisioning of your scheme? Because if it is envisioned by people like you, then it probably didn’t fit into what low-income and minority groups might want.
Q. Why has there been so much conflict around integrating sharing economy models, like Uber and Airbnb, into cities?
A. There’s nothing wrong with the concept of ride-sharing or sharing an apartment. But really they have ended up exacerbating problems. For instance, Airbnb is exacerbating housing crises in various cities. I think we want to see much more municipal regulation, in terms of making the sharing economy more equitable. We’re not anti-disruption — but I do think we have to have standards that can apply to worker hours, worker rights.
Q. You write in the book that there is no one path to a shared city — but there are common elements. What are the pillars of a truly shared city?
A. The fundamental principle is what we call the “sharing paradigm” — the understanding that human well-being depends on building, developing, and nurturing capabilities for all. The resources that we have to do that — from breathable air to education, energy, health care — are better understood as shared commons than private goods. We might decide, collectively, that the best way to manage and allocate resources is through market economies or public management, but the starting point is the recognition of the collective and shared nature of these resources.
For one thing, a sharing city would actively invest in public services and enable what’s called “coproduction.” The idea of coproduction is that you blur the boundary between producer and consumer. A good example: If you are discharged from Lehigh Regional Medical Center, in Pennsylvania, after having certain procedures, you will not be seen by a doctor or a nurse practitioner. You will be seen by a recently discharged patient who has had a similar procedure to you. And the recovery rate has been staggering -– far better than if you were seen by a doctor or a nurse. Why? Because this person can empathize with you.
Q. Can cities who aren’t yet thinking about the sharing paradigm on a large scale circumvent their own bureaucracy and political inertia to implement some of these kinds of changes?
A. One easy way that cities can get into this — like my own city, Cambridge, Massachusetts — is by engaging with participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting is a way to get people into the functioning of the city through a very small keyhole, by giving residents the power to set budget priorities. At the moment, Cambridge is making $750,000 available for its participatory budget decisions. It’s about making the city more transparent, and it’s about giving people real choices.
Q. How would you advise someone who wants to get more involved in their own city?
A. This is about the right to the city. This idea fits in with seeing the whole city as this shared entity, with shared public services — shared health care, child pre-education, libraries, etc. City dwellers are already reimagining and redefining their environments — and these environments are, by their nature, collective urban commons, they’re shared spaces. So for people who want to get into this: Don’t accept your place as it is. Think about what it could become. In many ways, the sharing-city concept is a vision and a product — the sharing city — but it’s also a process, of remaking the city.
For most of the last decade, I’ve been a reporter, covering stories on how technology is reshaping public life, from debates about God to protests in the streets. One thing I’ve noticed is that Internet culture has an odd way of using a really important word: democracy.
When a new app is said to be democratizing something – whether robotic personal assistants or sepia-toned selfies – it means allowing more people to access that something. Just access, along with a big, fat terms of service. Gone are those old associations of town meetings and voting booths; gone are co-ownership, co-governance, and accountability.
Words are the tools of my trade as a writer, so I like to have a handle on what they mean. We rely on them so much. Words connect us to each other; they remind us what we’re capable of. And I hope that the Internet can help us make our definitions of democracy more ambitious, rather than redefining it out of existence.
In late 2014 I was reporting a story about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, a website where users can find entirely online piecework – jobs that might take between seconds and hours, like transcribing a receipt, providing feedback on an ad, or taking a sociological survey. I went to Trebor Scholz’s Digital Labor conference in New York, which included real-life Mechanical Turkers. One was a wife whose husband lost his job, for instance; another was a former cable technician. I heard them describing what working on the platform is like. Employers can review them, but they can’t review employers. Their work can be rejected with no remuneration or recourse. There are no constraints to prevent below-minimum-wage pay. One of them complained in the media and her account was frozen.
Over the course of those days, a kind of question kept coming up among the Turkers, a thought experiment. They wondered aloud: What if we owned the platform? How would we set the rules? They’d sit with that for a minute or two, batting ideas back and forth about how to make the platform better for themselves – and for Amazon. Reasonable ideas. Clever ones. But then the ideas would fade back into reality again: back to the complaints.
Since then the agonies over the dictionary-altering Internet have only intensified. People have blockaded Google Buses to protest wealth inequality in San Francisco, and Uber drivers have gone on strike around the world. Increasingly this online economy is becoming the economy – the way more and more of us find jobs, relationships, and a roof over our heads. Internet companies aspire to network and monetize everything from our cars to our refrigerators; the companies call this the “Internet of things.” But the Turkers’ questions have kept coming back to me.
Were they on to something? What if the platforms and networks really were ours? What if we had an Internet of ownership?
Real sharing, real democracy
Another word that the Internet has gotten to is sharing. Sharing used to mean something we do with the people we know and trust.
In the so-called sharing economy, it means more convenient transactions that take place on distant servers somewhere. Convenience is great, but all along there has been a real sharing economy at work, the cooperative economy. One can trace the modern cooperative movement to the Rochdale Principles of 1844, in England, though it had precursors among ancient tribes, monasteries, and guilds around the world. The rudiments of this stuff could be basic common sense: shared ownership and governance among people who depend on an enterprise, shared profits, and coordination among enterprises rather than competition.
We might not know it, but co-ops are all around us. In Colorado, where I live, 70 percent of the state’s territory gets its power from cooperative electric companies that date to the 1930s and earlier, owned and governed by the people they serve. The credit union where I’m a member is one of the top mortgage lenders in the region. Up in the mountains west of me, some years back, a group of neighbours started their own co-op Internet service provider. There’s also Land O’Lakes, Organic Valley, and REI.
Co-ops come in all shapes and sizes. They fail less than other businesses, and they often pay better wages (except to top executives). Democracy, it turns out, works – though it can be less lucrative for those just trying to get rich. People in charge are harder to swindle.
I lived in a co-op house once; it followed a certain dirty, organic, folk-music-every-night stereotype. The same couldn’t be said, though, for what I saw at Kenya’s business school for managers of cooperatives. There, co-ops hold about half the GDP, and those students looked like business students anywhere – except that, along with all the marketing and case studies, they were also learning how to run a company where the people who work for you are your bosses.
In the area around Barcelona, among the thousands of members of the Catalan Integral Cooperative, I got a glimpse of what twenty-first-century cooperatives might look like. Rather than securing old-fashioned jobs, these independent workers help each other become less dependent on salaries, and more able to rely on the housing, food, childcare, and computer code they hold in common. They trade with their own digital currency. In cases like this, the traditional lines between workers, producers, consumers, and depositors may become harder to draw.
Part of the cooperative legacy has played out in tech culture already. The Internet relies on free, open-source tools built through feats of peer-to-peer self-governance, like Wikipedia and Linux. Visit many tech offices, from a startup’s garage to the Googleplex, and there are self-organizing teams creating projects from the bottom up. Yet somehow this democracy doesn’t seem to make it to the boardroom; things are still pretty twentieth-century corporate in there, with whoever happens to own the most shares calling the shots. There’s a firewall. We can practice democracy everywhere, it seems, except where it really matters.
There are some pretty sci-fi questions before us these days: Will apps and robots replace our jobs? Will any aspect of our digital lives escape the notice of surveillance? Can there be a digital utopia without the dystopias of sweatshops and blood minerals? In each case the cooperative tradition poses necessary questions, which in the onrush of change we may neglect to ask: Who owns the tools we live by, and how are they governed?
Cooperative enterprises of the past and present have relied on two kinds of strategies to gain a foothold in economies and cultures premised on competition. One is the competitive advantage to be found in cooperation – the ability to succeed where conventional markets fail, for instance, and the power latent in solidarity. The second is when the rules of the system are changed to support more cooperative practices – especially through governments that see the value of cooperative enterprise enough to encourage and fund it. For platform cooperativism to flourish, I suspect we need both of these.
We can begin by identifying the competitive advantages of cooperation.
- Cooperative practices, for instance, are poised to thicken the notoriously loose ties that online connectedness normally offers.
- And as big tech companies continue having difficulty treating workers and users as – well, people – co-ops can offer positive, ethical alternatives that workers and users can turn to.
- More wealth stays in the community when the owners are the workers who live there.
Hybrid models – combining aspects of a conventional company with aspects of cooperative ownership and governance – seem promising in the short term. Yet the rules of the system remain very much tilted against cooperativism.
This needs to change. Governments should recognize that cooperative platforms will mean more wealth staying in their communities and serving their constituents. Rather than trying (and failing) to say “no” to the likes of Uber, platform co-ops are something public institutions can say “yes” to. We need laws that make it easier to form and finance co-ops, as well as public investment in business development – stuff that extractive businesses get all the time.
This also means thinking differently about the incumbents. The Facebooks, Googles, and Ubers aren’t just regular companies anymore. Their business models are based on how dependent so many of us are on them; their ubiquity, in turn, is what makes them useful. They’re becoming public utilities. The less we have a choice about whether to use them, the more we need democracy to step in. What if a new generation of antitrust laws, instead of breaking up the emerging online utilities, created a pathway to more democratic ownership?
Rather than donating Facebook shares to his own LLC, Mark Zuckerberg could put them into a trust owned and controlled by Facebook users themselves. Then they, too, could have a seat in the boardroom when decisions are made about what to do with all that valuable personal data they pour into the platform – and they’d have a stake in ensuring the platform succeeds. How would you vote?
These aren’t just questions about what kind of Internet we want, or even what kind of world we want; they’re about how we see ourselves. Do we trust ourselves enough to expect democracy from the institutions on which we rely? Are we bold enough to imagine, as the Mechanical Turkers were, what the Internet would look like if we were in charge?
Thirty years ago, when the Internet wasn’t much more than a lab experiment, the social critic Theodore Roszak saw a lot of this coming. “Making the democratic most of the Information Age,” he wrote in The Cult of Information, “is a matter not only of technology but also of the social organization of that technology.”
We forget that. New gizmos come and go so quickly that we hardly notice when the meanings of our words change, and when what we expect of ourselves changes with them. Ordinary people have already made the Internet their own with their hacks, their memes, their protests, and their dreams. The cost of forfeiting control over these things is too high, and too mysterious. We need to expect better, to demand more. It’s time that we own and govern what is ours already.
This is an extract from Ours to Hack and to Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, a new vision for the future of work and a fairer internet, edited by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider and published by OR Books. Originally published on opendemocracy.net