Borrowing a power drill or hopping on a minibus to your hospital appointment might not seem like the cutting edge of a tech-driven positive future, but they could be.
Nesta’s ShareLab Scotland programme, in partnership with the Scottish Government, has come to an end. But the lessons we can draw from it suggest that bringing the best of technology and community together to share our resources could be a way to build a bright and more inclusive future for society.
Building on our previous ShareLab programmes, in 2018 the Scottish Government approached Nesta to run ShareLab in Scotland focusing on transport, energy and shared community resources. The premise of ShareLab Scotland was to find and support viable community projects that developed the local collaborative economy using technology platforms.
Five projects were supported with a specific focus on helping local people with the greatest need.
Each project had an immediate positive impact on local people. Like the Edinburgh Tool Library, which used a web platform to take its sharing service into new communities, allowing more people to access its services and learn new skills. Or Community Transport Glasgow, which developed a digital booking service to allow for more shared journeys, helping people to get medical appointments.
Beyond the scope of this programme, each project demonstrated the huge potential of embedding sharing platforms within trusted community organisations to create a flourishing collaborative economy in Scotland.
Of course there are challenges, but the lessons from ShareLab Scotland suggest by taking this model and investing the time and resources needed to make it work beyond pilot projects, Scotland could develop a vibrant, locally-managed sharing economy.
One of the challenges of the sharing economy in the digital age has been the rising dominance of big tech firms that own and operate the sharing platforms. They have managed to disrupt services like the hotel industry and the taxi industry, at scale and over a short period of time.
But managing these services locally, and engaging trusted community groups to lead them, transfers ownership and agency to people instead. With that power, communities can use technology to address issues that really matter to them.
However, community groups that understand the issues and needs of local people often lack the skills to deliver high-quality digital products which could serve those needs. And many of those who are close to technology are too far away from the social problems to propose ideas that are likely to have significant impact.
The ShareLab Scotland projects brought together people and organisations based in the community. They then contracted digital partners to create products and services to tackle the identified issues.
Deepening this collaboration between community groups and technology specialists in order to share an understanding of the challenges involved, on both sides and from the beginning of the process, will lead to smarter, more effective partnerships.
As more collaborative economy services are developed at a local level, these partnerships could and should evolve into wider sharing economy networks. Both community groups and digital technology partners can share guidance and best practice, spread the cost of resources and develop local, place-based partnerships where different services overlap.
With this kind of collaboration, viable community projects, while remaining locally focused, can be scaled and transposed to other areas to address other issues.
But social impact sharing platforms like those in ShareLab Scotland need investment to grow. And for small organisations, with limited cash reserves, finding finance requires significant time with complex application forms and unclear options.
If a viable collaborative economy is to be developed in Scotland, social funders in the public, private and third sectors, must recognise the potential of scalable sharing platforms to deliver social impact and seek to back them accordingly.
Investment should also come from those parts of the public sector, and the wider economy, which benefit from sharing platforms. For example, Community Transport Glasgow’s idea to get people to medical appointments by journey-sharing creates a resource, saving both time and money for the local health services. A community e-bike scheme, like the one developed by Inverclyde Community Development Trust, can take some of the strain off public transport providers and ease traffic congestion.
Bringing developing technologies together with the strengths and ideas of local people and organisations to address the needs of a community could be genuinely transformative and empowering.
The benefits of community-led sharing programmes go beyond supporting local people to impact public services and the wider economy. With investment and support, ideas like using an app to arrange and book volunteer transport to your GP or hospital appointment could set Scotland on a path to a bright, collaborative future.