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Easy Sharing: making sharing simpler than shopping

... In the West of Edinburgh, Terence drives to WHALE Arts to leave DIY and woodworking tools with Fabien. Fabien will drop off a couple of them with a neighbour. He makes a phone call and another man comes to collect some of the tools. Terence will come back next week to pick them up. Meanwhile, he is also arranging to deliver an angle grinder to Broomhouse Centre for a lady who is trying to remove the stubborn remains of a broken fence. In Muirhouse, there’s a man who is interested in borrowing a lawnmower after his was stolen. In Granton, there’s a woman who says, ‘I wouldn’t have bought a lawnmower if I had known I could borrow one.’

All of these tools have been donated by their original owners to the Edinburgh Tool Library. All of this happens in the first few weeks of the Easy Sharing pilot. Terence is the Easy Sharing Network Coordinator, and Fabien is one of the Easy Sharing Point Coordinators. Could this be the beginning of a dynamic city-wide network?

Building libraries of things into a network of sharing

Easy Sharing is an innovation pilot to make sharing simpler than shopping. The Tool Library has two workshops on the city’s coast and a depot for storing inventory in a busy commercial and residential area. All are popular among people whose location or lifestyle make them convenient to use. More than 10,000 loans have been made within five years.

But how do we make a library of things so popular and convenient that sharing becomes the obvious practical choice for everyone?

We don’t want to appeal only to a particular locality or demographic. We don’t want library borrowing to be just an ethical or cost-saving alternative. We want sharing to become so culturally embedded that it would be eccentric to buy what you only use occasionally.

If we are to re-frame consumption, borrowing has to be easy and social. Easy means logistics are simple and reliable. Social means that your local libraries of things are a household name in your community; borrowing means less effort for you and your friends.

In the peripheral areas of Edinburgh there are many communities of social housing that — culturally distant from the centre — are served locally by community anchor organisations. Many of these communities are marked by deprivation. They are outside the social orbit of the Edinburgh Tool Library and too far away for transport to be quick and easy.

We are beginning to make sharing simpler than shopping by widening the orbit of the Tool Library. This Nesta ShareLab project provides a weekly service to four Easy Sharing Points, community centres located in an arc around the West of Edinburgh. Terence, the Easy Sharing Network Coordinator, is dropping off items that have been reserved and collecting those that have been returned. Each Easy Sharing Point has a Point Coordinator to ease local logistics.

A sharing platform to support local networks

Easy Sharing also needs the library catalogue software to accommodate this new lending model, both in its user interface and backend support for the Point-to-Point logistics. Like almost every other library of things in the world, the Edinburgh Tool Library uses myTurn cataloguing software. But this is the first time myTurn has offered a choice of multiple delivery locations. Easy Sharing has funded feature development in the myTurn system that makes multi-location delivery available to all myTurn libraries of things worldwide. In essence, we are trialling a hub-and-spoke model for scaling the sharing economy.

Easy Sharing library members can set their default Easy Sharing Point, and collect reserved items, ideally, within walking distance of their house. The Easy Sharing Network Coordinator and, locally, the Easy Sharing Point Coordinators can see what has been reserved where and what needs to move from one location to another. myTurn now creates a manifest matched to the van route to support check-out and check-in logistics.

Until now, myTurn has not provided the capacity to separate a type of membership from a particular library. A new feature will be a sign-up process that is Easy-Sharing-specific, in that it will not charge a membership fee (within the terms of the pilot) and will set a default Easy Sharing Point. This feature will provide a simpler service-orientated process to the end user. We have learned that service simplification is a prerequisite for successful outreach.

Infrastructure is not enough

Success will depend on partnerships with locations that serve as Easy Sharing Points. Our first Easy Sharing Points are third-sector community centres. Equally, they could be local-government amenities, places of work, places of worship, or shopping centres: anywhere with a committed partner organisation and natural footfall. The Point Coordinators were first conceived as logistical support on delivery day for the Easy Sharing Network Coordinator, who, in the pilot, can only spend an hour a week at each Point. But the people who have stepped into that role are proving to be key to local engagement. They are well connected locally and personal advocates for Easy Sharing. We are a month into the pilot, which runs until October, and so far have around 20 members and 5 loans. That’s a firm, if modest, start.

So far outreach has consisted of well publicised launch days of making in each community (making a little free library, garden benches, a coat stand). Those who have attended have wanted to know more; many have signed up. Attendance has generally been low, but we know that this is not unusual for innovation projects in areas of multiple deprivation.

However, our Point Coordinators and other community members are promoting the project locally: through a housing association, a church, and a school, for example. We are investing in outreach. Scaling the sharing economy necessarily requires top-down resource: software, transport, staffing. But grassroots promotion is also part of scaling for innovation: we must whet people’s appetite for sharing instead of shopping.

What radical success would look like

The further the pilot progresses, the more we realise how ambitious we need to be. Right now, buying is ‘easy’ because of enormous commercial investment in retail supply chains and market creation. A radical challenge to a culture of acquisition and consumption demands collaboration with many stakeholders across all sectors. We invite collaboration in Easy Sharing from the public sector and from business, as well as additional third-sector partners. We also expect that Easy Sharing will stimulate new libraries of things. A common technology and transport service will facilitate innovation and stimulate demand, from individual consumers and from organisations.

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The Easy Sharing project as a learning experience

Easy Sharing would not have got this far without the committed belief of many partners, including Nesta and with support from the Scottish Government that it has potential to grow and effect lasting change. Libraries of things are a practical innovation within a new economic system that values social and environmental justice over GDP. But the evident value of Easy Sharing is not enough to guarantee successful outreach or a sustainable business model. We recognise that Nesta, as an innovation charity, is unusual in sharing with us the risk of investing in such ambitious innovation.

Everyone involved in the project, including the community centre staff and software developers, can see its potential. But we also see how much resource will be needed to bring it to the mainstream. Reflecting on the amount of unbudgeted effort the pilot has demanded is an important learning outcome. That recognition is essential to quantifying and budgeting for the continued development of Easy Sharing. A streamlined service, from outreach to sign-up, to reservation and collection, has needed refinement of concept and clarity of language, in order to integrate with the Tool Library’s core membership processes. Outreach into communities through their existing amenities and social networks could easy justify much greater staffing. Understanding Easy Sharing’s real cost as a supply chain infrastructure gives us the confidence to prepare an ambitious business plan demanding multiple revenue streams. As a successful proof of concept, the pilot informs the trajectory of future development.

Our next step is to attract funding to continue Easy Sharing in the West of Edinburgh and extend the Network into community centres in the East of the City. Beyond that, we plan to diversify to other amenities that could serve as Easy Sharing Points. Easy Sharing has the power to integrate many partner organisations and multiple demographics across Edinburgh.

Catherine Lyons, Easy Sharing Project Manager

With thanks to Terence Finnegan, Easy Sharing Network Coordinator, Fabien Merville, Easy Sharing Point Coordinator at WHALE Arts, and Gene Homicki, CEO, myTurn

Author

Kyle Usher

Kyle Usher

Kyle Usher

Programme Manager (Scotland), Innovation Programmes

Kyle is a Programme Manager based in Edinburgh, leading on ShareLab Scotland.

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