8 steps toward a sharing city

Understanding what a real sharing city looks like is for the moment at least, an exercise of the imagination. But we are beginning to see a number of cities across the world developing strategies and activities that seek to generate social, environmental and economic value from embracing and adopting the sharing economy and the principles that underpin it.

The lived reality is that often these embryonic ‘sharing cities’ are not distinct from - and certainly overlap with – ‘smart cities’ and ‘sustainable cities’ however, that ‘sharing city’ is being adopted as a term by a growing number cities across the world, demands a bit more exploration.

Currently sharing cities are self-identifying, sometimes with express political leadership (such as in Seoul), sometimes kick-started through grass-roots activity coalescing to form a movement, such as has emerged in Amsterdam.

There is a growing range of policy initiatives and experiments that are being employed by city governments to support the sharing economy. However, these efforts are yet to be brought together and analysed in a systematic way. In advance of deeper work in this area, and drawing on and adapting our CITIE framework, this blog describes eight possible questions and indicators that taken together may begin to realise the vision of a sharing city.

1. Regulation – Does the city regulate the sharing economy in a way that allows for disruptive entry?

The most live and pressing sharing economy issue for many cities is the approach it takes to regulation. Last year saw the UK take a big leap forward in taking on some of the regulatory challenges posed by the sharing economy with the commissioning of the UK Sharing Economy Review - and subsequent Government response. The UK’s approach to date has been enabling and encouraging; regulating business models in a way that allows for - and adapts to post hoc - disruptive entry.

That not all governments and cities have taken such an open approach is well documented, and the complexity of business models and applications underpinning sharing economy businesses makes taking a binary approach (i.e. deregulation good, existing regulation bad) not always universally helpful to city leaders. However, assessing a city based on its comfort and confidence to welcome new market entrants; inviting new, innovative and disruptive business models is a significant step to enabling a sharing city. Deliberate experimentalism, such as we see with the 120 day experiment allowing Lyft and Uber to operate in Portland, Oregon is a good example of how cities can take an evidence-based approach to navigate a path through what can sometimes be highly controversial innovation.

The extent to which cities promote and regulate safety provisions in sharing economy services varies greatly across the world, and is presenting big questions for cities – regardless of whether they profess themselves to be ‘sharing cities’ or not. Insurance, background check requirements, building codes and ensuring that parties are held accountable for safety measures are all issues a sharing city needs to take a position on; and taking time to model the administrative resource required to impose additional verification or inspection requirements on sharing economy practices is probably a good idea – as Dallas city officials will tell you.

2. Advocacy – Does the city promote itself as a sharing city, to the city community and to the outside world?

Building a public story about the positive value that can be created through the sharing economy has been a starting point for some cities, as we have seen with the Shareable Cities Resolution signed by 15 US mayors in 2013. Indianapolis talks publicly about its ‘big tent’ idea, welcoming all and any businesses to pilot projects that might positively impact the city. And there’s no doubt that for leadership, political ownership of the sharing economy agenda is a key driver, when well supported by other practical and policy interventions. A sharing city will often promote - both to its citizens and the wider world - its commitment to:

a) encouraging better understanding and potential of the sharing economy, in particular getting smart about tracking impact

b) reviewing the need for changing regulation in the sharing economy and

c) exploiting the principles (and platforms) of the sharing economy to better meet local priorities, whether that be integrated transport, tackling isolation, reducing pollution etc, and maintain a general principle of maximising the use of public assets.

3. City as Customer – Does the city actively seek out innovation and invite sharing solutions through procurement and commissioning?

There are some very obvious ways in which cities and governments can use the sharing economy to make more efficient use of their own resources. As a starting point, it can allow for officials to use existing platforms for official and government activities. For example, the UK government is now allowing its civil servants to use home-sharing platforms when travelling on official business and many city councils are considering - or have already replaced - council car fleets with club car membership. The fact that accommodation and transport have been two of the most successful sectors in the sharing economy to date makes these kinds of interventions a logical starting point for city governments.

Yet the potential for expanding out from this starting point is huge and there are many opportunities to consider applying sharing economy principles in the design, commissioning and delivery of different kinds of public services. For example, Nesta’s People-Powered Health, Shared Lives Plus and Macmillan’s approach to mobilising a more flexible pool of volunteers to support people suffering from cancer, all embody the principles of the sharing economy to address the real and genuine challenges to caring for our city’s elderly, ill and vulnerable.

4. Being a good host – Does the city use space to create opportunities for sharing companies?

New initiatives and ventures need lots of things to flourish, with space to work and grow being key. City government support for co-working spaces, accelerators and enabling access to affordable and flexible office space are key enabling activities. For example, Seoul has opened up over 800 city-owned spaces for creative and productive purposes and the UK Govermnent’s Space for Growth programme is providing start-ups, charities and social enterprises free and low cost temporary use of government–owned space in cities across the UK.

5. Investment – Does the city invest in the skills and businesses required to create a sharing city?

Another key to growing a successful sharing city is the extent to which businesses can not only work within an enabling regulatory environment, but also access investment and support. Seoul has directly financed a number of sharing initiatives across the city, Bloomberg Philanthropies has financed Kirklees to create a platform for city-wide sharing of skills and goods and UK Government support for Leeds and Manchester to become sharing cities are all evidence of the wider opportunity to finance activities that go beyond venture capital support for tech platforms and marketplaces. There may also be a role for supporting co-mingled funds that bring together private and public finance to support sharing economy platforms that generate financial returns as well as social/environmental impact within a city.

6. City as Connector – Does the city grow the sharing economy through increasing physical and digital connectivity?

Free public wifi and access to high-speed internet is becoming a norm for any high-performing city as is an approach to connecting up physical infrastructure like transport. Cities are exploring the logical extension to transport connectivity by including all kinds of bike, car and ride sharing schemes. For example, Helsinki is deploying ‘mobility on demand’; designed to seamlessly combine all possible public transport options for travellers across the city. Leeds City Region is thinking along similar lines. As the sharing economy grows beyond accommodation, space and transport, we’re also seeing the need for innovation and investment in distribution and logistics systems; that can more efficiently transport goods from where they are, to where they are needed. These new distribution systems can often be sharing economy (p2p) businesses themselves; and may form an increasingly key part of a sharing city infrastructure.

7. Strategy - Has the city built the internal capabilities required to support innovation and the sharing economy?

An explicit and published vision of how a city will support the sharing economy, alongside a set of indicators to plot success is a basic starting point. And a city can only meaningfully support the acceleration of innovation in the sharing economy (and indeed other areas/sectors) if it dedicates resource to provide leadership and co-ordination across city hall. Innovation teams and labs are fast growing in city governments across the world; and as our iTeams work shows, they can take a number of forms; often taking an open approach to bringing in innovation and innovators from outside government. For example, the Mayor’s Office for New Urban Mechanics in Boston facilitates connections between entrepreneurs and government, providing legitimacy and support for city innovators to develop innovative solutions for city challenges.

8. Datavore - Does the city use data to generate greater public value from the sharing economy?

The sharing economy is data-rich and only going to get richer. At present, data is largely closed and held by commercial platforms and marketplaces. As cities get increasingly smart about using data to offer seamless information to citizens (on say, available public transport options), there are clear motivations for them wanting access to sharing platform data; enabling new, or more complete insights into traffic flow, parking, tourism, or indeed whether sharing economy businesses are vastly under-serving certain parts of the city or population. This year we’ve seen Uber share ride-pattern data with Boston city officials, but the extent to which cities are able to collaborate with – or provide the right incentives for - these platforms to share their data is yet to really be seen.

Another interesting challenge is likely to be the enforcement of regulation of sharing economy platforms. While we’re seeing many city governments take a progressive stance in re-thinking and in some cases relaxing regulation, certain rules in relation to say, ride and home sharing do still apply and city governments are likely to want to see those rules enforced. Sharing platforms may well not want to become the enforcers of that regulation; but what is undeniable, is that in some cases they will certainly have the necessary data to know when a user is in contravention of a regulation – even if they may not want to share it. The jury’s out on whether this issue will be resolved in a satisfying way for a sharing city government.

On the flip side, there are also ways in which governments and cities might open up data to take the friction out of engaging in the sharing economy. A good example of this would be the stated intention of the UK’s Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to share driving license data with the car and ride sharing sector - reducing friction for users and platforms alike.


This first pass at a list of indicators for a sharing city will almost certainly evolve over time. And over the course of the next few months, we’ll be mapping some of the world’s sharing cities against this framework and sharing what we learn. As always your feedback and suggested additions are always welcome.



Helen Goulden

Helen Goulden

Helen Goulden

Executive Director, Innovation Lab

Helen was an Executive Director at Nesta and lead our Innovation Lab. The Lab’s mission is to support and scale innovation for the public good; working with partners to run innovation …

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