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

Submitted by Adam Beck on June 6, 2017

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.

And the third principle is the concept of the urban commons, where common assets (parks, places, vacant land) are stewarded together, to enable collaboration and experimentation. The city as a commons, and as an open platform that fosters social innovation and shared decision-making is the goal.

Beck: What does technology and data do for the sharing city?

Sharp: It’s an enabler. Technology is important, but must be of the 'open source' nature. The commons is a key guiding principle and if the tech is propriety, it tends to close down innovation and leads to crowding out. The world wide web is the best example of an open source platform. The largest transformation tool in modern history is an open source platform to catalyse innovation and prosperity.

Evolving the smart city as a shareable city has allowed start-ups to be engaged. It is allowing citizens and other stakeholders to have control over their own data, and collectively own and share the benefits. The City of Melbourne's open data platform is a great example of this.

Beck: What's your favourite application of technology and data in the sharing cities movement?

Sharp: I love what they have done in Barcelona, the BarCola process of using public engagement to develop policy proposals and technical guidelines for building commons-based sharing economy platforms. The Smart Citizen project is built using open hardware, it's a distributed city-wide sensing platform and a citizen science initiative.

Beck: What's the sharing cities outlook for Australia?

Sharp: It's positive. Cities are better understanding their role in the sharing economy, and how they can lead, rather than having to play catch up all the time. And this is important, because as cities shift from a role of playing catch up, and become facilitators and enablers of the sharing economy, we can realise some impactful outcomes.

So, if we can ensure the sharing economy is collaboration-led and people-centric, we are able to create sharing cities that encourages citizen innovation. And this is exciting.

Darren Sharp is Director of Social Surplus and part of an international team writing a book on Sharing Cities to be published by in August 2017.