Today Next City launched The Shared City, a new daily blog about the rise and consequences of the sharing economy, in which social and governmental systems play new roles to enable less individual consumption and more collaboration. The column is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, where Carol Coletta is vice president for community and national initiatives. I talked with Carol by phone last week to discuss this new column and why this topic interests us both so much. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Diana Lind: The Shared City column is going to look at how cities are dealing with disruptions in technology and government that are resulting in a stronger sharing economy and shared responsibility for shaping cities. Why do you think this is an important conversation to be having right now?
Carol Coletta: Sharing is an extremely timely issue. In tough economic times, people can use their resources more efficiently or generate some extra income by sharing goods and services. Given the world’s environmental concerns, sharing is a way to “live more, own less.” It can also be useful in instances when the government can’t provide all the services it used to provide. Where we pitch in by providing our own service and actually enjoy providing that service, sharing can enhance our quality of life and the neighborhoods around us. Let me ask you: Why are you interested in the shared city and in the sharing economy?
DL: There are number of different trends that are coalescing around this topic. Demographic shifts are creating denser, tech-savvy cities that enable the sharing economy – whether that’s apps that connect you with neighbors to crowdfund a park, or city-wide projects like bike sharing. At the same time, there are economic shifts that are creating major challenges for cities. The old model of paying taxes for city services doesn’t quite work anymore. What makes this column pretty exciting is the opportunity to explore both what’s already happening and to explore where all this disruption is leading us. I think it’s hard to tell whether this shared city model will increase opportunities for people or will end up generating more inequality than ever before — what do you think?
CC: Sharing potentially cuts a lot more people into the game, which is a good thing. To the extent that people can share their skills, their knowledge, their things, and by doing so, put more money into their pockets, that’s an economic generator. It can create more local jobs and create interesting new kinds of work for people that we haven’t anticipated.
The shared city may also provide more opportunities for government to enable citizens to co-create public assets. We’ve seen this before — with the Central Park Conservancy or Friends of the High Line —where you have citizens providing a level of maintenance for a public asset. What are other ways that government and citizens can work side by side to improve the quality of life in a community?
I’m also interested in the public policy implications of sharing and how to level the playing field between the real and virtual world. It makes no sense why, when I order a book from Amazon, I pay no sales tax; but when I buy the same book in the bookstore across the street, I do pay sales tax. If I stay in someone’s home through Airbnb versus stay in a hotel room, why am I paying hotel/motel tax in one place and not in the other? Public policy hasn’t caught up to the potential of the sharing economy. It will be interesting to see how this column grapples with that.
DL: It seems sort of ironic that we’re talking about collaboration between government and citizens, and yet we hear again and again how our governmental leaders are not able to compromise and work together. Isn’t it strange that this sharing economy is taking off at the same time?
CC: We have unfortunately stepped away from active citizenship. We talk about government as “the other” instead of as “us” – which, in a democracy, it really is. A democracy is nothing but shared citizenship, right? And government is a manifestation of our shared citizenship. This column will potentially tell us something about what citizenship and democracy can be. In so doing, perhaps we rebuild the muscle of democracy.
DL: You have a relatively new position at Knight. I’m curious to know what you’re hoping to achieve with your funding and how this particular project fits within that framework?
CC: The fundamental belief of the Knight Foundation is that informed, engaged communities are essential to a strong democracy. Much of the sharing that will take place will be a manifestation of community engagement. If you can work with neighbors to produce community goods — that could be a community garden, that could be a cleaner street— that is a form of engagement, and the more engaged I am in my community, the stronger our democracy will be.