Sharing: Is Humankind’s Oldest Technology Ready for a Comeback? (2010)

CACOR (Canadian Association for the Club of Rome) Talk by Chris Bradshaw, Wednesday, March 10, 2010,

I/ Introduction:

Long before automobiles or even science, humankind discovered sharing — of tools, housing, roads, and meeting houses – a natural way to deal with scarce resources of labour and materials.  And long before Adam Smith pointed out the value of specialization in labour in mass production, our forefathers used sharing of a rich mix of people and resources and inherited knowledge to do things individuals could not do.  Now society has begun recognizing that these limits exist for the planet, and government are introducing taxes and regulations of various sorts to avoid catastrophe, and those competing for resources that appear to have approaching limits are bidding up prices for them.  This is bringing our system of individual consumption close to hitting a wall.  Can sharing allow us to avoid fighting for these scarcities, of even more inequity between haves and have-nots, of  stubbornly hanging on to something that is relatively new: individual, exclusive ownership.

I proposed to Ted Manning that I talk about the future of shared cars, but he took advantage of my adventurous side and suggested I look at sharing as a strategy in other areas.  I will be exploring one way we can cope, more placidly than in most science fiction literature, as a way to share our way back to living within our limits.  Rather than limiting the number of people on earth, I want to explore ways to limit the population of stuff.  This is a especially important now as the developing world seems more ready than ever to adopt the West’s model of “consumption = happiness.”  Maybe it’s time to develop a different model.

When Vrtucar started in early 2000, I became intrigued by the “sharing” part of the name which the German pioneers, in 1988, used.  I was quite used to sharing, having grown up as the eldest of six children in a lower-middle-class family.  I had also helped start the co-housing movement locally, of which I will have more to say later.  The real eye-opener was reading, ten years ago, Petr Kropotkin’s 1902 book, Mutual Aid.  Kropotkin showed how extensive sharing was in pre-historic culture, predating the family and any concept of private ownership.  He pointed out that survival of the fittest favoured not just individual strengths, but also community strengths.  Those able to work together survived better than those made up of only the fittest individuals.  Then I followed that by reading The Age of Access by Jeremy Rifkin.  Rifkin looks at trends away from ownership, especially by companies – of land, buildings, and machinery – in return for leases that provide access from separate companies managing the resources a specialties.  And a notable academic, 2009 Nobel laureate in Economics, Elinor Ostrom, of Indiana University, has studied the management of shared resources in cultures throughout history and found that there is no such thing as “tragedy of the commons.”  She found many examples of local practices that ensured that all parties sharing a resource followed common rules that required them to contribute to its maintenance and protection.

In my research for this paper, I found that sharing is a very plastic word, being used in so many different ways.  And I also found very little writing focused on it.  And the books I consulted didn’t have “sharing” in their indicies.  Internet searches, it is, as you would expect, turn up mostly references to information sharing.  So we’re pioneers here today.

II/ Sharing as a “technology?”

I first used these two words together when I was staffing a Vrtucar booth at our Canadian Museum of Science and Technology on Earth Day a decade ago.  “Why aren’t your cars hybrids?” I was asked again and again.  I explained that sharing saved more fuel and pollution than alternative fuels or coupling electric and gasoline motors.  I also added that sharing cars on a 20:1 ratio eliminated the energy and resources used consumed to manufacturing and transport (1/3 of total lifecycle consumption) those 19 cars.  I finally muttered that sharing is actually a technology.  And anyway, only car-sharing addressed the space and sprawl and congestion costs of cars.  Our private-ownership regime for cars results in each car being utilized 1% of capacity: that is the product of 5% time use it is on the road and 20% utilization of carrying capacity.

The 1972 Club of Rome report doesn’t help me make my point.  It quotes Garrett Hardin in the same ‘tragedy of the commons” article as saying “a technological solution is ‘one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of changes in human values or ideas of morality.”  So social inventions are not part of technology, eh?  Is it because durable resources used to make consumer items are seen as the purview of only the hard sciences?  As proof of my claim that it is our first technology, I would suggest reading Kropotkin. Ostrom, and even Jared Diamond’s Collapse to realize how early human institutions of sharing evolved and probably predated language.

III/ Things to be Shared:

I am not going to look at many kinds of sharing that are possible and rather common:

1/ Information sharing.

2/ The resource sharing where private ownership is almost impossible, especially over air and water, animals, and the habitats.

3/ Risk-sharing via private insurance and tax-supported entitlements.

4/ Temporary sharing (tourism & hospitality)

5/ Labour sharing, via jobsharing, local currency exchanges like Ithaca Hours.

6/ Giving of one’s money and time, which might be called “sharity.”

7/ Consumables, like food and cosmetics, which cannot really be shared, since they are truly consumed. However, they are the subject of a great deal of overconsumption, wastage, and general poor allocation.

What I am focusing on here are the trillions of durable consumer items which might be able to be shared in some way.

IV/ Rebuilding the Base for Sharing

First, we need to tell more stories of sharing.  Right now, sharing abounds in children’s literature  and Disney movies, and at Christmas for the rest of us via movies like It’s a Wonderful Life.   But don’t forget that, as much as history is full of accounts of conflict, it is also full of examples of group cohesion and empowerment through sharing and cooperation.

Second, we need to take into account scale: time and space.  Timothy Allen has written about this in natural environments.  Every activity has a natural scale, in time and space, that is optimal.  Food gathering occurs in a daily scale at distances the species can travel within that time scale and within their strength capabilities.  Humans need things at different distances from them based on frequency of access.  For example, I wrote about the demise of the life on city blocks in 1995 for the book, Beyond the Car.  I said the the demise of the corner store has left a scalar gap.  The home had to adjust and main streets small grocers started to disappear (e.g., one on Rideau Street near to our home is being replaced by the Ottawa EnviroCentre).  Houses had to get larger in order to hold the average amount of food that bi-weekly shopping entails.  Ten years ago I was called as a walking expert by the Westboro Community Association at the OMB hearing on the proposed Loblaws superstore and commented about not only how the car traffic would degrade those walk to and from the store, but its size would make the walking inside the store very taxing for older shoppers.  Not being able to buy food just hours before it was prepared meant having a big fridge and a freezer.   And the car started to get a lot more use, transformed from being a household appliance to a personal one.  And the house started transforming to a rooming house as bedrooms housed personal appliances like computers, TVs, and microwaves and mini-fridges.

Third, we need to understand the consumption of durables, which, after all, should never be ‘consumed.’  The dichotomy between need and want is not sufficient.  The recent BBC series “The Century of the Self,” shows how much effort and study has gone into stimulating consumption at the individual scale.  Community and peer influences are denigrated; everything comes back to something called the self; there is no role for sharing in that vision.  Neighbours are competitors in consumption, not collaborators.  We must ask what role ownership plays and if access could be enough?  What parts of the brain does ownership and possession stimulate?

The companies have found an eternal cycle that can be tapped.  They remind people in advertising of the frustrations of life, and then cast the product as the solution.  My 1998 article in the Local Environment journal argued that two elements, resentments and rewards, work like a tag-team.  The manufacturer commiserates about life’s frustrations, and then casts the product as a reward for enduring such things, since so much is beyond our ability to reform.  Or the product is imbued with one of the many qualities people feel they have lost in their modern life: power, status, popularity.   I concluded by identifying seven kinds of rewards, pointing out how owning and driving a car satisfied six of them.

Most of the frustrations, I realized, were resentments about how we are treated by those in with slightly more power than than us.  Modern life is dependent on relationships with a myriad of very large systems organizations, both companies and agencies.  It is very easy for the “supplicant” as Gail Stewart terms it, to fixate on their treatment by the organization’s agents, how they seem to be judging them, and keep them waiting and citing rules they won’t discuss.  This is a new feature of life, and one we are hard to cope with.  I dubbed the resentment-reward cycle the “burn cycle.” The Ottawa Citizen series’ on obesity made references, Sunday, to one doctor’s “reward pathways in the brain.”  And Richard Sennett, in The Fall of Public Man, documents resentment’s role in politics and how politicians try to incite it by talking about “the bureaucrats.”

The antidote to the “burn cycle” is what I call the “learn cycle,” consisting of the Buddhist concepts of action and contemplation, working together as a positive tag-team.  The object is mindfulness, which is an awareness of one’s self and environment, in ever-increasing levels of mastery.  Our only real, lasting reward is the resulting climb up the ladder of competence, which Buddhists call enlightenment.

Fourth, information technology has to be used to take away a lot of the “friction” of sharing.  The carsharing industry are the pioneers, using it in ways far beyond the “blackbox” all cars now have (and which might be the cause of Toyota acceleration problems).  They reduce the “transaction” costs of the short 2-3-hr uses by using IT:  1) to manage the hand-offs between users, 2) to provide monitoring of the vehicle, so service is reliable, 3) to generate monthly invoices, 4) to book cars out of service for maintenance, and 5) to find a car when it isn’t where it is supposed to be.

This can grow.  Like other fleet owners, carshare owners should be sharing data on use with both manufacturers and municipalities who use models for their transportation system that has little real data.

Fifth, in a world in which income is unevenly distributed, we should welcome sharing.  It will allow the poor to avoid completely doing without; access is something that can be scaled gradually, while ownership is an all-or-nothing proposition.  Ostrom, in a book with Charlotte Hess, points to the denial of access to the knowledge commons for students and third-world researchers because of by the current high fees of up to $20,000 a year for learned journals that the owners know they have a monopoly over.  Most academics who supply these articles are not paid by the publishers to write them, but by their academic institutions, and often pay the journal.  Finally, what about the poor’s limited access to computers, the Internet, and even the new digital ebook readers?

V/ A Focus on the Future of Carsharing

In today’s configuration, carsharing addresses very little of the 99% inefficiency in car transportation.  The 6 hours a day of use doesn’t result in any more mileage than a personal cars gets in just 1.5 hours on the road, due to the time carshare users pay for the car to sit at his various destination.  And the user is usually as alone in the car as personal-car users.

The way bike-sharing operates shows two additional options carsharing could emulate: allowing uses without reservations: “you see it parked, it’s available,” and one-way uses, which knocks out the idle time at various destinations.  The problem is users of cars plan their trips more, so reservations will continue to be important for certain trips.  That, then, raises a significant question: how do you mix the two forms of access in the same fleet?

Another issue is getting the cars on the road during rush hour carrying several members to their jobs at the same business park.  There is no “app” for that.

I am working on what I consider second-generation carsharing with a local business person.  To get service into the suburbs for the first time anywhere, we are looking at a fleet of vans used as rideshare or vanpool vehicles.  The difference is that they will then be available during the workday at the workplace for business and person trips by individuals, and for the same uses in the residential area where it is stationed evenings and weekends.  Their availability at workplaces – to all workers, not just the ridesharers – will mean an end to one of the main excuses people have to getting a car to commute in: “I never know ahead of time when I will need to drive during the day.”  And in the subdivision, it will provide a car – in this case a van – for the few times a household needs a second vehicle or a really big vehicle.  How many people buy vans as their first car because they sometimes needs it space (e.g., kids’ birthday party or a trip to Home Depot)?

OC Transpo might be interested in helping, since we can offer rides cheaper and faster and without subsidy, which itself is mostly caused by the fact that the rush-hour demand is so inefficient to meet, as buses and driver sit idle except for these two 2-hour periods five days a week.  And what about all the people who don’t work downtown or by the transitway and today have no alternative but the SOV (single-occupant vehicle)?

Third-generation car-sharing will further extend the seat-booking and one-way uses much more, coming ever closer to taxi business and mid-day bus service.  The service will be able to accommodate on-the-fly pickups, like taxis and buses, using a booking system that can, for longer trips — in rural and urban areas — book seats in a series of vehicles, mixing cars and buses.  It won’t be door-to-door, but involve walking to main streets and collectors.  There is no reason privately-owned vehicles can’t be registered at certain hours of the week (BTW, Baltimore is the site of the world’s first carsharing service using only privately-owned vehicles).  With enough vehicles being shared on the road, we can guarantee wait times between trips sections in units of seconds, not minutes – and parties will be able to see on their handheld where the parties they are meeting are at any moment.  Can you imagine how small parking lots would need to be if every car parked were available for anyone leaving the store to use?  This was explored by Moishe Safdie, the architect of our National Gallery and Montreal’s Habitat, along with Wendy Kohn, The City After the Automobile.  The parking garage at a shopping mall on the urban fringe would operate like a pop vending machine, providing the next car in line when a request was made.

This system could handle serial rides, in which a person from the rural area is given a series of seats in shared vehicles with waits of only a few seconds between them: a walk to the main road, a ride in a shared car to a transit stop for a speedy cross-town movement, and then a pickup of another driver to get him to within a few blocks of his workplace.  The payment for this would occur automatically, and without subsidy, and the traveler would get a good 10 minutes of brisk walking included.

VI/ Opportunities in Housing, including Appliances and Tools:

The other area of sharing I foresee being able to make big dents in consumption use is what is called co-housing.  Space heating of homes constitutes a large percentage of total energy demand.  Upgrading insulation, windows, and furnaces ignores the issue of the excessive amounts of interior space that needs to be kept warm, much of it underutilized and/or filled with little-used private “stuff.”  Few people are aware that, in the last 45 years the average household has doubled in square feet, while the number of people living in each home has declined by half – in other words, a four-fold increase in space per person.

While party rooms and swimming pools are being dropped from new condos, co-housing goes the other direction, increasing shared space.  It provides in a “common house” those rooms that most houses have, but are used infrequently: workshops, guest bedrooms, and large formal dining rooms with equally large kitchens.  And the family room (that the kids own) is one noisy, messy place.  By providing these communally, the individual units can be smaller.  The most used is the dining room-kitchen.  The evening meal is prepared by adults on a rotation basis.  It is especially popular with the kids who get to eat when they are hungry, not when their parents get home.  The dining room doubles as a gathering room to draw the noise makers away from individual units.

Although most are built from scratch as townhouse projects, Ottawa’s only co-housing project, Terra Firma, in Old Ottawa East, consists of just seven units, six of where were pre-existing.  They bought six existing row units and then later added the common house and seventh living unit in the gap between them two e-door rows.  Some local seniors are currently looking for a site to build an apartment-building co-housing project.  These people focus partly on their care needs in later years.

The need is to find how to bring this idea to existing blocks of housing, perhaps one unit for each city block.  Would it qualify as a condominium, or need special status, because of the common house, as a residential improvement area (models on the Ontario program for BIAs that now serve 14 main streets in Ottawa, and more than 70 in Toronto).

Another resource for creating shared indoor spaces, are the corner stores.  There are about 150 left in Ottawa, some in the older suburbs like Alta Vista.   These relics of the pre-automobile period of 70 or so years ago are dying slowly, people use their cars to avoid them, thanks to perceptions that their prices are higher, selection limited, and turnover questionable.  Why couldn’t these stores be revived by adding functions, such as making them part of the distribution of mail (community mail boxes are ironically only in newer areas) and the pick-up of recyclables, saving the nuisance and energy costs of big trucks stopping at each house (a misplaced concern for privacy?) and allowing much more refined sorting than individual households can now be trusted to do competently.  It would also provide employment to young people.

They could also have rooms for testing out catalog items before accepting them, helping the catalog business reduce fraud and ensure returned items are repackaged correctly.  It might be possible that such rejuvenated corner stores could double as common houses as well, so the latter would not have to be dependent on cooperative arrangements.  “Runs” to the store would not require either a car or an adult.

These two place would add to the block level the kinds of places sociologist Ray Oldenberg, in his book The Great Good Place, describes as “third places.”  These beauty parlours, pubs, cafes, etc., though, usually serve the next scale up – whole neighbourhoods – by providing the easy-going relations that are free of the duties and responsibilities of “first places” (our homes) and “second places” (workplaces).  The recent revival of coffee shops occurred after the book came out.  I think the revival of corner stores is still ahead.  One of the truisms known by dwellers of older neighbourhoods is that the more such nearby “third places” there are, the smaller your own living units have to be.

There is a synergy between carsharing and co-housing.  The reduced local car population removes the need to use private land for parking; there is enough curb parking to accommodate the local “fleet.”  This frees this land for additional open space and housing.  People may have a choice whether or not to have a car of their own, but zoning denies them the right to decide whether they need a parking spot on their land.  People living in street townhousing in the newer suburbs know that the lack of parking for second cars is all about the fact that each private driveway eliminates one or two curb parking spaces.

Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone, pointed to another link between community and cars. His extensive study on why civic engagement, or social capital, in decline, concluded that automobility and the accompanying suburban sprawl are together the second most significant contributor to the decline.  Local government officials should be focusing more on sidewalks and community spaces, not on building more roads and demanding more parking.

Once there is shared space at the block scale, it will be easy to share tools and appliances, thanks to the presence of shared spaces, a pre-existing common ownership structure, and a trust relationship among its population.  I can also see clothes washers and dryers being shared.  The Internet could also become more local: someone will develop a browser that starts with news and links for the block, followed by those connected to the neighbourhood (see “Neigh-Net,” cited below).

As the markets for these items shift from individual buyers to institutional ones, I see a different retailing relationship developing, one that focuses on the product’s utilitarian aspects; the record-keeping will provide data to manufacturers and researchers on actual use patterns; and the result should be 1) higher reliability; 2) more standardization of placement of controls across different models to allow sharers to be less surprised when using different models at different times (e.g., less problem finding the wipers in the car you are driving), and 3) less attention to – and variability for – “taste” and “style” – although design will still be as important.

Why not have the manufacturers be required to retain ownership and to accept the item back when the current user is finished with it.  It actually brings the user more freedom, as pointed out by media professor Douglas Rushkoff in Life, Inc., his most recent book.  Ownership rights are diluted by the efforts of owners to protect the value of valuable purchases so that they will maximize the proceeds of a sale of the house, the car, or any other “big ticket” item in the used market.

Smaller Items:

Sharing of smaller more personal things is probably not worth organizing formally.  Storage and cost are not issues, and there are not that many resources involved (most of which can be recovered from recycling).  But they still can benefit from what could be called serial ownership: letting it pass on to another users once it is no longer wanted.  We already facilitate this via want ads (which are mostly on-line now), garage sales, donations to non-profit second-hand stores or consignment shops or flea markets, and “gleaning” (e.g., dumpster diving).  But we need still neighbourhood depots close enough to every home to accept large items like furniture and larger tools.  And medium-sized appliances can be dropped off and in many cases repaired or otherwise rehabilitated or adapted to new uses.


1/ Sharing can become a significant way to reduce our footprint without doing completely without.  It works best when: a) needs for things are not urgent, b) the items being shared cost more than the value of use, c) ownership imposes high costs of storage and maintenance, and d) the individual user has a certain mindfulness.

2/ The act of sharing itself builds the conditions for further growth in sharing: adding shared spaces, building trust, adding communication between individuals, strengthening of local ties.

3/ Sharing is best done where people live in medium density close to each other along walkable streets, and where there are common spaces for storing what is shared.  The fact that population shifts around the world are in the direction of higher densities is a good sign.

4/ The coming tax measures focusing on reducing demand for items that have large footprints will raise prices and induce shifts to sharing.  There is also a growing interest in returning to a sense of community, including their diversity of age, income, and background.

5/ Sharing can make major contributions to the three sectors with the largest footprints: transportation, housing, and the manufacturing of major personal and household items.

6/ Resistance to sharing should be expected.  It will mainly come those who think they have the money for it, and who value personal privacy and equate it with freedom.  In no case should sharing be imposed; it will produce resentment that will cause it to stall badly.

7/ The digitalization of communication and knowledge and miniaturization of devices that access these things will make sharing not only more personal and more portable, but will remove much of the friction of interpersonal differences.


Bradshaw, Chris (1995) “Walkability”, in Zielinsky, Sue & Gordon Laird (eds.) (1995)
Beyond the Car: Essays on the Car Culture [Steel Rail Press, Toronto]
– “The Scalar Hierarchy Integrity Principle (SHIP)” (1998) presentation ESAC, Ottawa
–    “Neigh-Net” (1993)
–    [cited in Doheny-Farina, Dennis (1996) The Wired Cmty.]
– “Using Our Feet to Reduce Our Footprint” in Local Environment (journal), Vol II, #1 (Jan ’97)
Chermayeff, Serge & Christopher Alexander (1963) Community & Privacy
Diamond, Jared (2005) Collapse
Dominguez, Joe and Laura Robin (1992) Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship
to Money and Achieving Financial Independence
Etzioni, Amitai (1999) The Limits to Privacy
Hardin, Garrett, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968)
Hess, Charlotte & Elinor Ostrom (eds.) (2007) Understanding Knowledge as a Commons:
From Theory to Practice
Hirsch, Fred (1978) Social Limits of Growth
Kirkey, Sharon, “Bewitched by Tasty Food,” Ottawa Citizen, March 7, 2010, p. a1-10
Kropotkin, Petr (1902) Mutual Aid
Lasch, Christopher (1995) Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy
Meadows, Donella, et. al. (1972) The Limits of Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome
Oldenburg, Ray (1991) The Great Good Place: cafés, coffee shops, community centers, beauty
parlors, general stores, bars, hangouts, and how they get you through the day
O’Neill, R.V., D.L. DeAngelis, J.B. Wilde, and T.F.H. Allen (1986) A Hierarchical Concept
of Ecosystems
Ostrom, Elinor (1991)  Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action
Putnam, Robert (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
Rifkin, Jeremy (2000) Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism Where All of Life is a
Paid-for Experience
Safdie, Moshe & Wendy Kohn (1997), The City After the Automobile.
Sennett, Richard (1974) The Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism
Shoup, Donald (2005) The High Cost of Free Parking

BBC series “The Century of the Self,”

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