A few days ago Portland announced the launch of the largest “sharing” and “smart“ bicycle service in the US. The grandiloquence of the owner (it must be recognized) met its objective: in less than two minutes, I read all the details in the article, surprised, once more, by the ability to strip the most basic concepts of meaning. I wonder if any sharing culture exists as such in the country that takes pride in being the cradle of new social change.
We worked on that confusion, which is more and more widespread, in the seminar on Sharing Cities directed by Neal Gorenflo and Tom Llewellyn in Somero 2015. In one of the sessions, we were asked to name initiatives that were sharing and that create “commons,” and make suggestions that could be started in a medium-sized city like Gijón. The dissent didn’t take long to appear, given that the proposals that the majority of the participants from Anglo-Saxon culture put on the table continued to be public goods—or private services—offered with the label “collaborative consumption,” where no one was sharing anything, but making use of a fleet of bikes or cars that belonged to a company.
But municipal goods and services are not “commons,” and a rental vehicle from a company-owed fleet is not “collaborative.” Confusing things only can lead to disillusionment and disappointment.
Tom noted that certainly, Anglo culture and the absence of public policies in the US tended to distort the terms “commons” and collaborative consumption/sharing. Municipal bicycle or car-sharing services, even though they may be shared in the sense that there is one vehicle and many users, don’t create any kind of commons, nor are they collaborative consumption. They are mere extensions of transportation services, no different from other public utilities when they are publicly owned, or from a car-rental company when privately owned.
Commons/community: property and management are communal, not State-owned
The “commons,” that which is communal, is goods that belong to a community, a group of real people, a demos, that manages it jointly and directly. Public property is something else: it is State property.
But, isn’t public property, by definition, the common property of all citizens? Wouldn’t municipal public goods be, by definition, “communal?” No. Publicly-owned goods are managed through specific institutions that decide how they are used and where the profits go. Citizens don’t take part directly in management and decisions about these goods and their use. They are not communal.
The municipal bus company of any city can be a publicly-owned good, property of city hall, or of the wider region. But it is not a communal good. The classic example of communal goods would be the common lands of many towns, collectively owned by their users, who directly manage their use. The transportation business could be part of the urban commons if it was, simply, a cooperative of users.
Sharing/collaborative: personal property is shared
The “sharing economy” or collaborative consumption exists when the users share use of goods, while maintaining private ownership. If city hall or a company makes cars or bicycles publicly available (charging a rental fee) there’s no collaborative consumption. “Bike sharing” would be when you share the use of your bike(s) with others through a system of use management. If no one shares their personal property, there’s no “sharing” at all. In most municipal “biking” or “car-sharing” services, the bikes belong to a company or city hall itself. There is no collaborative consumption, but rather, hourly rental.
Was this confusion necessary?
- It has the sponsorship of a private business that assures its operation for the first 5 years
- The system is connected with the city’s transportation system
- There’s an agreement with city government for the location of pick-up points
- A private business takes charge of the managing the service
It looks like a textbook case of public-private collaboration in which everyone wins. The city offers a service without bearing the cost of its maintenance, the sponsoring business gains a presence in the main points of the city and has thousands of ads on wheels, the managing business operates with guarantees and zero risk for the first five years of the project, and citizens have a new means of transportation. It’s fantastic!!
However, the project’s publicity is being done using terms that have little to do with its nature. And surely, this is not out of any wish to deceive, but rather difficulty understanding the different roles of the State, businesses, and communities. But it’s part of a trend, a framework of understanding that gradually becomes a new standard in political language.
The problem is that when a concept is stripped of meaning, it ends up creating disappointment, and that disappointment reflects not just on the one who made false promises, but what was promised. It ends up “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” So, it’s quite possible that the spread of the narrative on commons and collaboration, caught between short-term political thinking that tries to be “cool” at any cost and the rent-seeking interests of a part of academia, may result in widespread disillusionment and perhaps a very sad decade.