The economy of sharing

The SF Bay Area is a hub for a new type of economy, where things aren’t bought but borrowed. Let’s call it the age of sharing
Andrew Leonard and Jess Chamberlain

Neal Gorenflo likes to share. The Mountain View, California, resident works out of a shared office space in San Francisco, editing the online magazine Shareable. He has no access to a car during the workweek; if he absolutely must drive, he checks to see what his neighbors have on Getaround, or he signs into the Bay Area’s City CarShare service. He started a tool lending library in his garage. And on a recent trip to New York, he stayed in an architect’s loft found via the sharing service Airbnb. “[The architect] built a cabin inside her loft, so I rented the cabin.” He prefers this to a cookie-cutter hotel room, plus he gets priceless nontouristy tips from the owner of the property.

About seven years ago, Neal became so disillusioned with the meaninglessness of his job at a shipping company, he quit to be more connected to his community. After bouncing around Internet start-ups that facilitated collaboration and sharing physical assets, he launched Shareable.

Neal is far from alone in his commitment to the lifestyle. Whether motivated by the harsh necessities of a tough economy, a concern for conserving Earth’s diminishing resources, or simply a desire to connect, more and more of us are participating in “the sharing economy.”

People have always shared things, of course. But changes in technology are making it easier to coordinate with complete strangers. Before Internet and the iPhone, how would you ever know that the guy down the street was willing to rent out his Prius for $10 an hour?

“We now have this global digital Internet platform that can locate us and things on the planet physically,” says San Francisco’s Lisa Gansky, author of 2010’s The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing. “We’re in a moment in which access to goods, services, and talent is going to triumph over the ownership of them.

All these things we historically imagine owning—homes and cars and bikes and tools—can be put on a network that makes them accessible to others when you aren’t going to use them for periods of time.” And in the next three to five years, she predicts, whenever you buy something, it’ll automatically be logged into a shareable virtual inventory. It’s social media, the next wave, connecting not just us, but our stuff.

The Bay Area, home to a tech-savvy populace and early Web-sharing platforms like eBay, Craigslist, and Apple’s iTunes, is a hotbed for this type of economy. It’s a place where enough people are willing to open up their cars and homes to strangers so that locally founded services like Getaround and Airbnb have quickly reached critical mass. (Airbnb was valued at $1.3 billion in July and claims more than 2 million total bookings.)

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