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Duncan McLaren Julian Agyeman

Juliet Schor’s essay on the sharing economy offers a great foundation for some discriminating thinking about this potentially transformative tool. Rather too much of the ink spilt elsewhere on this topic so far has been unquestioning boosterism or vitriolic criticism, with too little reflective analysis.

Schor’s reflections highlight several key questions. To what extent is the sharing economy commercialized? What power do participants have to avoid their labor being exploited? How great are the rebound effects from improved efficiency of use of goods and resources? Does sharing increase social capital or reinforce biases and hierarchies?

There are indeed serious problems and contradictions emerging in the commercial extremes of the sharing economy, where social purposes, environmental benefits, and labor rights seem to be being sacrificed on the high altar of venture capital returns and rapid growth for the developers and owners of the smart web-mediated platforms on which these organizations are based. Schor wisely calls for a shift in the balance of power from the platforms to the providers of shared goods and services.

But to focus solely on sharing as an economic practice risks missing the biggest opportunities. In addition to building a social movement to deliver fair sharing (and designing sharing schemes around equity and justice), we believe there is an opportunity—especially for city authorities—to support community-based and socio-cultural sharing, rooted in physical and ”soft” infrastructures, facilities, and public spaces, in ways that can rebuild community, inspire cooperative action, and even reinvigorate collective politics.

The South Korean city of Seoul perhaps illustrates best how communal and socio-cultural sharing can be facilitated by city authorities. Mayor Pak Won-soon is leveraging Korea’s leading digital connection rates and the city’s high population densities to reinvigorate its collective culture with a series of city-sponsored sharing initiatives. Seoul is sharing public buildings with citizens and community organizations; supporting the establishment of apartment building sharing libraries for books, tools, and other useful resources; and incubating sharing economy startups, such as a home-share initiative for elderly people with room to spare to house students. To ensure everyone can participate in online sharing, the city is also providing free second hand smart devices to those in need.

Sharing can reach into all aspects of our lives in any country, not just those with collective cultures. Shared Lives is a neighborhood-scale scheme in the UK to provide care and support to adults who don’t have a family. Carers can be a family, an individual, or couples who share their home with an adult who needs support, whether because of age, a learning disability, or a mental health issue. About 12,000 people currently use the program.

Another example might be Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLES). Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK, has conducted a series of experiments providing access to computers to children in India. The results were stunning: without any instruction or supervision, they were able to teach themselves a surprising variety of things, from DNA replication to English. These SOLES have proved transferable into classrooms, where they take the form of semi-structured sessions in which educators pose questions for children to engage with in self-organized groups, with access to all the resources of the web. Both teachers and students report greater learning and retention of knowledge as well as more enjoyable learning experiences.

These two examples are illustrative of the broader and more inclusive concept that, in our forthcoming book, we call the “sharing paradigm.” Our use of this term reflects our belief that sharing is, could, or should be something more fundamental to both human and societal development than is encompassed within the more bounded term “sharing economy.” It reflects our belief that in a revival of sharing lie the seeds of a potential post-capitalist society.

The sharing paradigm is based on the fundamental understanding that well-being depends on building and developing human capabilities for all, and that the fundamental resources we have available to do that—from breathable air to education, and from energy resources to health care—are better conceived and understood as shared commons than as private goods. We may collectively decide that the best way to manage and allocate certain resources is through market economies, or perhaps through public management, but our starting point is the recognition of their collective, shared nature. The sharing paradigm, therefore, foregrounds ways of thinking based on sharing resources fairly, rather than by ability to pay; treating resources and the environment as the common property of humankind; nurturing the collective commons of human culture and society; and stimulating human flourishing by establishing and enabling the expression of individual and collective capabilities.

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Julian Agyeman
Julian Agyeman is a Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. His current research focuses on the complex and embedded relations between humans and the environment and the effects of this on public policy and planning processes and outcomes. He co-founded the Black Environment Network and Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability, for which he serves as Editor-in-Chief.

Duncan McLaren

Duncan McLaren is a freelance researcher and consultant, focusing on energy, climate, cities, and sustainability. He is studying part-time for a PhD in the justice implications of geoengineering at Lancaster University, UK. Previously, he worked for many years in the environmental non-profit sector, most recently as Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland from 2003 to 2011. He is the co-author, with Julian Agyeman, of Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities.


Cite as Julian Agyeman and Duncan McLaren, "Commentary on 'Debating the Sharing Economy,'" Great Transition Initiative (October 2014),

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