Monday, May 9, 2016

Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities

According to the 2014 United Nations World Urbanization Prospects report, some two-thirds of the world's population is expected to reside in cities by 2050, more than double the percentage of urban dwellers that existed across the globe in 1950. To manage this growth, policymakers have embraced the notion that cities need to become 'smart', using information and communications technology to effectively administer municipal services and physical infrastructure and provide access to quality-of-life amenities for a broad range of constituents. The same technologies that enable urban smartness have also given rise to a host of expanded exchange networks, from peer-to-peer file sharing among individuals to larger-scale 'disruptive' enterprises of the so-called sharing economy, such as Airbnb and Uber. How smartness and sharing might best be brought to bear in the urban context is the subject of Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities by environmentalist Duncan McLaren and Julian Agyerman, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University.

Citing social science research, the authors assert that sharing is endemic to human culture and indeed a major contributing factor to the species' evolution. They further argue that cities are quintessentially sharing structures, spaces for leveraging physical resources, social connections, and cultural interactions. What smartness brings to the equation is a new 'mediated' sharing, the ability to access much broader networks of exchange made possible through the various forms of information and communication technologies that have emerged in the last two-and-a-half decades. While mediated sharing potentially broadens opportunities for exchange, its commercialization under the sharing economy threatens to diminish it. McLaren and Agyerman argue for a new 'sharing paradigm', which focuses more on solidarity, collaboration, and trust than on monetized transaction.

As the Harvard Business Review notes, the 'sharing economy' isn't really about sharing in the conventional sense but more about using other people's stuff without being obliged to reciprocate. It's essentially governed by the alienating effects of monetary exchange, as noted more than a century ago by social philosopher Georg Simmel in his 1900 classic, The Philosophy of Money. HBR uses the term 'access economy' to denote exchange transactions in which people rent goods and services rather than buy them outright. McLaren and Agyerman want to turn the conversation back to sharing in its traditional form by focusing on examples that embrace its more communal aspects, organizing their narrative around general themes, each of which is prefaced by a case-study city that encapsulates the concept that follows.

The first is collaborative consumption, exemplified by San Francisco. A key trend they identify is 'disownership', the rising popularity of sharing, renting, or borrowing things that have traditionally been individually owned, exchanges that have been greatly facilitated by the internet. Among the items to disown according to The People's Guide to Disownerhip are cars, vacation properties, wedding attire, and luxury wear and other goods. Some of this trend is driven by sheer economics: for younger consumers carrying onerous student debt loads and residing in areas with high living costs, owning a car or house simply doesn't square with the monthly budget. But older, more affluent consumers are also drawn to it in an effort to reduce the hassle of routine maintenance over time and, more altruistically, maximize use value from an environmental standpoint. For cities, collaborative consumption can increase the efficiency of infrastructure and services. But as the authors note, 'sharing' on this level can overlook preexisting inequalities: you can't rent out 'spare' rooms on Airbnb if you have no room to spare, you can't offer rides through Uber or Lyft if you don't have a vehicle, and you can't even get a gig in the wretched gig economy without a way to get online.

Another is co-production, using Seoul as the case study. As it pertains to public service, co-production theoretically entails collaboration on equal footing between government officials and local citizens in developing policies and delivering solutions that suit a particular community's needs. According to the authors, co-production has the potential to reduce inequality in the conventional economy by engaging constituents in the decision-making process from the beginning. (The common catch phrase calls 'this working with the community as opposed to for it'.) Co-production underlies open-source practices, from developing computer software and industrial products to confronting large-scale problems of global ecology. Peer-to-peer micro-lending and crowdfunding are examples of co-production in the financial sector. In urban environments, co-production takes form in community gardens, time banks, maker spaces, and other cooperative enterprises. While co-production can promote social solidarity, a downside, as McLaren and Agyerman note, is the susceptibility to exploitation on the part of participants at the lower end of the access economy value chain. (See, for example, Tiziana Terranova's critique of the sources of economic value in the digital economy. The working conditions of Uber drivers is another often-cited case.)

In the remainder of the book, McLaren and Agyerman expand the analysis from economistic considerations to engage broader issues of political, cultural, and social equity. The case-study cities are Copenhagen, Medillin, and Amsterdam. In these chapters, the authors raise issues of the public domain and what French social philosopher Henri Lefebvre terms 'the right to the city', the authority of local residents to determine who and what the spaces in which they live and circulate are for. In the political sphere, McLaren and Agyerman take note of the central role urban spaces have historically played in fostering political movements and change. Political movements have increasingly come to rely on the networked public sphere of cyberspace even as the physical environment has become more and more privatized and subject to restrictions on physical access (a trend momentarily challenged by the various iterations of the Occupy movement). On a more general social level, they investigate the city as a collective commons, an ideal space for a true 'sharing paradigm' to be enacted. A good part of this section is devoted to responding to conventional objections against the value of sharing in the 'real world'.

Sharing Cities appears to be geared toward policymakers, researchers, and other wonkish types. It surveys a broad swath, across many disciplines, of the literature on sharing, copiously annotated. As a result, it can be difficult to trace how some of the narrative contributes to the overall argument, outside of demonstrating that the authors have done their homework.

A thread that runs throughout the book relates to what McLaren and Agyerman term the 'cultural hegemony of consumerism', an impediment to realizing a true sharing paradigm and a quandary that extends to so-called ethical consumption, as well. Taking a cue from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the authors point to the cultural construction of consumerism as a form of domination based on the distinguishing characteristics of taste, which have a class bias, and an individual's ability to buy. And however well-intentioned, ethical consumption, which tends to operate on the model of first-world consumption of third-world production, can actually perpetuate inequality rather than ameliorate it.

The concept of consumerism often seems to stand in for capitalism itself. (Indeed, the entry for 'Capitalism' in the index directs readers to 'Consumerism' in addition to 'Neoliberalism'.) It is only toward the end of the book that the logic of capital is directly addressed as the true barrier to sharing and sustainability, based as it is on the ever-increasing accumulation of profit to hell with all and everyone else. That demurral makes Sharing Cities seem less urgent and hence less compelling than it otherwise could have been.