Who cares about sharing?

“We wanted to explore the more latent, hidden aspects of their consciousness, so we didn’t directly ask them about sharing,” explains Giuseppe Salvia, research fellow in Politecnico di Milano in the department of architecture and urban studies.

“We asked them to reflect on their day to day life in relation to waste, mobility, energy, things like that. So we were able to understand what they do and the variety of lifestyles. Then we asked, what if you could do the same, but sharing some things?”

Giuseppe is explaining the process through which the city of Milan worked with citizens to understand what makes them tick, and how best to design sustainable sharing-based services. If people can be convinced to share more, whether it’s cars, bicycles, tools or even time, there are serious benefits for the environment.

Best among neighbours

In a normal household, something like a drill gets used far less than 1% of its lifetime. If you could reduce the number of such machines being purchased by a factor of one hundred, the carbon footprint of a city would plummet overnight.

However, according to Giuseppe, it will not be as easy as that. “There are mixed feelings about sharing. We assumed people would be excited about the idea of sharing, and in many cases they are. It’s a big city and people feel this loss of contact with others. So it is welcome, but only in specific circumstances: when it connects you with your neighbours, with the local scale, and when it connects you for a shared interest.”

Feeling indebted

Giuseppe’s research, carried out as part of the European-funded Sharing Cities project, revealed another quirk of people’s attitude to sharing: people are worried about getting something for free, or at a low price, from each other – it creates a feeling of ‘social indebtedness’.

That, says Giuseppe, is why, for example, people prefer car sharing, where you drive a car alone but share it with others, to ride sharing, where you drive together with other people. “You feel obliged to interact with other people. With ride sharing, especially if it’s offered for free, you feel like you have to give something back. This is social indebtedness, and people generally don’t want that in everyday life.”

This is part of the reason why people don’t want to do too much sharing on a day-to-day basis, as well as concerns about questions of ownership and damage. However, people are more interested in sharing pricy things that are rarely used, like skiing or snowboarding gear, Giuseppe’s research found.

Online or in person

The most famous examples of the so-called ‘sharing economy’ are online behemoths like Uber and AirBnB, but Giuseppe points out that online isn’t for everyone. “Online is a tricky element. It connects people that otherwise might struggle to connect, but it also prevents people from joining.”

For groups like the elderly and digitally illiterate, the online sphere causes problems that a city should not overlook. The recommendation was that both avenues should be left open: sharing services that exist online should also exist at a physical location in order for all people to have equal access to them.

People are experts

The codesign approach that Giuseppe and his team at in Politecnico di Milano are using to help design new sharing services is based on the idea that people have essential knowledge that is not visible from the top down. “Codesign is now quite an established approach. It originated in the 1970s in Scandinavia as a method of analysing what workers had to do in their daily routines and how the same activities could be done in a better, safer and more interesting way.”

When the results of this process were more happy and productive workers, the method caught on and the public and private sector realised that it could be expanded to all citizens and all processes.

After all, as Giuseppe points out, “People are experts in their daily lives, and they know better than anyone else what they do, what they need and what they want.” 

An intensive, but powerful process

Codesign can often be an intensive process, both in terms of time and money, but it pays off in the end, “codesign is a powerful means for creating benefits. It’s an investment rather than a waste of time. Because you have to invest a lot of time, but you get the knowledge you really need to make your venture successful. It lets you understand how to develop your service to fit into people’s lives. When you don’t do this, projects don’t get taken up by people,” Giuseppe says.

A variety of tools and techniques exist to work effectively with citizens to come up with urban solutions. “You are accessing people’s knowledge, people’s desires and people’s dreams,” Giuseppe explains, “you need tools for getting the evident and explicit but also hidden and latent knowledge.”

The process begins with mind-maps where people detail their everyday lives. How do they travel to work? What kind of transport do they feel comfortable using late at night? Do they produce any of their own food? How do they dispose of it?

Once the mind-maps are drawn, deep discussion and questioning is used to find out how new sharing infrastructure could fit in. “Rather than using behavioural change to change people’s habits by convincing people, you try to let your ideas fit better with what people actually do. You become a part of their routines,” says Giuseppe.

Sample bias

One issue with the codesign approach is that certain kinds of people are more likely to participate than others. “Our sample was mainly white people, older than the average, and more educated. It was difficult to reach out to a more diverse range of people.” Barriers like language, free time available, and trust in the municipality can all prevent more diverse and representative groups from having their voices heard.

However, no matter how many flaws the process may have, it is essential for any major urban venture. “It is an investment,” says Giuseppe, “you have to invest a lot of time, but you get the knowledge you really need to make your venture successful. When you don’t do this, projects don’t get taken up by people.”

The right incentives

So what did Milan’s team discover about how to incentivise sharing, and how the city is putting it into practice? Variety is key, according to Giuseppe, as different people have a variety of desires. That may seem obvious enough, but there was one powerful and perhaps surprising discovery: “Our research showed that people might be more keen to engage in rewarding schemes if the rewards were collective, rather than private.”

People like the idea of making a social contribution. Things like contributing to a fund for local schools function as much better rewards than things with no social purpose. Rather than saving points for a bike helmet, people are far happier if their use of a bike sharing scheme somehow contributes “to building more cycle paths or making the streets safer. Most people want to contribute to a greater goal.”

Using the insights

The city of Milan is putting these insights to good use with a new sharing app launched earlier this year, ‘SharingMi,’ which already has over 1,200 subscribers and more than 4,000 stories shared. This social platform creates communities around common interests with sustainability at their heart.

By publishing the contents on SharingMi, the many users accumulate ‘claps’ and ‘BankoNuts’. They can spend these in eco-friendly enterprises, but the social encouragement created by an online group of likeminded people is the main incentive.

The ‘claps’ are not awarded top-down, but generated from other users when you produce inspiring content related to your greater goal. The city is working to integrate this app with sharing services, so that using shared bicycles or cars will automatically boost your score.

Milan has not kept this research to itself. Two other cities, Lisbon and London, partnered with Milan in the Sharing Cities project, are launching their own version of the app. They are using the research to explore different directions of incentivisation.

For example, in Lisbon the first iteration allows people to bank their points to donate to local schools. In London’s borough of Greenwich, the app is fitting into people’s everyday lives by only asking them to make small short-term adjustments to their normal routines.

The message is clear for cities: If you want to see change for a sustainable future, you can’t just work for people – you have to work with them. 

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer