Review: Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons

Shareable, a nonprofit media outlet co-founded by Neal Gorenflo in 2009, is devoted to the sharing economy (the real sharing economy of platform cooperatives and other open, self-organized effort — not proprietary, walled-garden, Death Star platforms like Uber and Airbnb).

In 2011 Shareable organized the Share San Francisco conference to promote the city as a platform for sharing, which in turn inspired the “Sharing Cities” movement. The goal of Sharing Cities was to create horizontal linkages between local communities and serve as a platform to coordinate policies for encouraging the growth of sharing economies. Shareable itself, under the “Sharing Cities” tag, highlighted commons-based projects like open-source hailing platforms and other shared mobility projects, coworking spaces, participatory budgeting, multi-family cohousing/coliving arrangements, tool libraries, community land trusts, neighborhood gardens, shared renewable energy, municipalist projects like those in Barcelona and Jackson, hackerspaces and repair cafes, and many more.

Shareable created the Sharing Cities Network as a support platform for the project. According to the project’s website:

Fifty cities around the world began mapping their shared resources in October and November 2013 during Shareable’s first annual #MapJam. This was just the beginning of the Sharing Cities Network – an ambitious project to create one hundred sharing cities groups by 2015.

As of this writing, there are seventy-three cities worldwide listed on their Community Maps page, each one with a detailed map of sharing projects and assets. In addition, the movement led to a series of Sharing Cities Summits, the second of which in 2017 set up the Sharing Cities Alliance — which includes thirty-odd cities worldwide — as a standing body.

The book Sharing Cities is the outgrowth of these nine eventful years. Following an introduction by Gorenflo, in which he summarizes the background of the Sharing Cities movement, states its basic principles and assesses its significance, the book — a collaborative effort by fifteen people — provides over two hundred pages of case studies of local sharing economy projects in dozens of cities.

The case studies, organized topically into eleven chapters, offer fairly comprehensive and systematic coverage of sharing projects in pretty much every functional subdivision of local economies, including land ownership and housing, food, cooperative finance, micro-manufacturing, transportation — and, well, everything else.

As Gorenflo notes in the introduction, the commons “was part of, but not the core of,” the initial Share San Francisco meeting. This changed, he says, because of the realization that “sharing” functions could and would be coopted by the above-mentioned corporate Death Star model if the movement did not explicitly embrace open and commons-based models.

Even more so, it changed because of the Sharing Cities movement’s interaction and cooperative engagement with a number of other commons-based movements. From organizations like the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives (P2P Foundation) founded by Michel Bauwens, to scholar-advocates of commons-based municipal economies like Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione (the closest thing the municipalist movement has to organic intellectuals), and even actual large-scale municipalist policy efforts (those emerging from M15 in Barcelona and Madrid, commons-based movements in Bologna and Amsterdam, older movements like Cooperation Jackson and the Evergreen Initiative in Cleveland, and the efforts that have since proliferated in hundreds of other cities), the Sharing Cities project has drawn inspiration from many areas.

In addition this ecosystem of movements includes a number of Autonomist thinkers like Massimo De Angelis who emphasize the commons as the kernel of an emerging post-capitalist society. And the role of the city in post-capitalist transition has been a theme in the work of thinkers ranging from Murray Bookchin to David Harvey.

All these things coming together amount, between them, to Steam Engine Time for commons-based municipal economies. This is more true than ever in the last couple of years. As even nominally leftist governments like Syntagma in Greece show their impotence or unwillingness to act in the face of neoliberal assault, and fascist or fascist-adjacent leaders come to power in a growing share of the West, municipal platforms and networks of such platforms have become the primary base for popular empowerment.

The importance of the urban commons to cities today is that it situates residents as the key actors — not markets, technologies, or governments, as popular narratives suggest — at a time when people feel increasingly powerless. To paraphrase commons scholars Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione, the city as a commons is a claim on the city by the people. Furthermore, a commons transition is a viable, post-capitalist way forward….

And if the various strands of municipalism add up to an ecosystem, Shareable and Sharing Cities occupy a vital niche in that ecosystem.

On the purely theoretical side, commons-based scholars of post-capitalist transition (De Angelis, for example) have done superb work on the commons as a new mode of production growing within the interstices of capitalism. But aside from general recommendations like growing the commons by incorporating a growing share of the material prerequisites of physical and social reproduction into its circuit, they have been light on the nuts and bolts of institutional examples of such practice. And activists like Chokwe Lumumba and Ada Colau have done amazing work in building local municipal platforms to promote a commons-based model of economic development. But when it comes to developing the full range of tangible alternatives and integrating them into a cohesive commons-based economy, such local movements have been quite uneven in identifying the possibilities. For example Cleveland and Jackson have focused heavily on incubating cooperative enterprises under the inspiration of Mondragon, but have in my opinion failed to take advantage of the potential of open-source information and cheap open-source micromanufacturing machinery for community bootstrapping.

The combined and coordinated development of all the possibilities for sharing economies within a community’s discretion, to the full extent of its discretion, would be revolutionary beyond anything we have seen. What if a municipality incorporated all vacant municipal land and housing into community land trusts, and acted as a cooperative enterprise incubator on the Cleveland and Jackson models, and used the surplus capacity of city and public utility fiber-optic infrastructure to provide low-cost community broadband, and made the unused capacity of public buildings available as community hubs, and implemented participatory budgeting and citizen policy platforms, and facilitated the creation of open/cooperative sharing platforms as alternatives to Uber, and facilitated the creation of hackerspaces and repair cafes and Fab Labs and garage factories, and required government offices and public education facilities to use open-source software and mandated that all publicly funded research and scholarship be in the public domain? All at the same time? It would amount to an entire commons-based economy, comprising a sizeable core of the entire local economy, with synergies and growth potential beyond imagining.

This is where Shareable comes in, and where it has done more than anyone else to kick-start needed action. Shareable took the lead not only in encouraging municipalities to become platforms for supporting and facilitating local sharing economies. It also promoted concrete mapping projects in individual cities to systematically identify and catalog all the potential assets for incorporation into a commons-based economy, and publicized concrete examples of commons-based praxis in all areas of social, economic, and political life from around the world. The subsequent emergence of other efforts at urban commons mapping and commons-based development policies in specific cities around the world (particularly notable is the P2P Foundation’s efforts in Ghent) is arguably the fruit of a seed planted by Shareable.

If scholars like De Angelis point to the commons as the core of the post-capitalist economy, and Barcelona and Madrid point to the municipality as the primary locus for facilitating commons-based projects, then Shareable has taken the lead in cataloging and sharing the full range of specific examples of such projects and encouraging others to follow their example.

Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons embodies this cataloging and sharing project. Given the number of localities with municipalist movements, and the number of local activists and tinkerers worldwide developing commons-based projects, there are more projects on the ground than would fit into a thirty-volume encyclopedia, let alone one book. But the survey in Sharing Cities is a representative sample of the full range of what’s being done; every case study can be taken as a proxy for what others are doing in countless other communities around the world.

In short, this book is indispensable for anyone interested in what’s being done on the ground to build the society of the future.

 

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist