Despite lockdowns, movement restrictions and fears of infection, the coronavirus pandemic has re-energized moves to achieve a sharing economy, argue Jeffrey Kok Hui Chan of the Singapore University of Technology and Design and Zhang Ye of the National University of Singapore, co-authors of the book Sharing by Design. Individuals and households require more resources and support than before and despite the challenges posed by Covid-19, adaptations made during the pandemic suggest progress towards a Sharing City concept.
Pandemic protection: In the fight against Covid-19, sharing of medical equipment and supplies allowed hospitals to focus on what really mattered – caring for patients (Credit: Ariadna Creus and Àngel García)
The unrelenting global coronavirus pandemic compounds the mounting pressure on cities to decarbonize rapidly, reduce inequality, improve access to services and amenities, and increase overall resilience. The pandemic has exploited the manifold vulnerabilities of urban poverty. Inadequate health infrastructure, lack of water or sanitation services, overcrowded housing with little or no access to green spaces not only increased the contagion threat, but also amplified the risk of medical complications from Covid-19. Falling sick in these conditions often means significant income loss, which is accompanied by other vulnerabilities that make the virus more harmful in a vicious cycle that widens inequality. The World Bank estimates that nearly 120 million people have fallen into extreme poverty in mostly low and middle-income countries because of the pandemic.
At the same time, many cities are bracing for the full impact of the “scissors effect”, under which government expenditure increases while tax revenues decline. Previously unknown expenditures – for instance, testing and contact-tracing, purchase of vaccines and other personal protective equipment (PPE), among others – are expected to increase while lockdown, border control, and other business disruptions continue to erode revenue. With no clear endgame to the pandemic in sight (though some countries such as Singapore are moving to treat Covid-19 as endemic), many cities are likely to fall behind on meeting their sustainable goals. In turn, this will erode resilience for the next pandemic. When taming this outbreak depends so much on attaining a sustainable, equitable and healthy city, cities not only should build back better, but they should also build back right.
The Sharing City framework
If so, then what constitutes a roadmap to “build back right”? The Sharing City is germane. Already tested in different cities at various scales, this framework has been driving a large-scale project in the European Union (EU), frames design research at and among different universities, and continues to be discussed in key forums worldwide, such as the 2021 Venice Biennale’s Architecture Exhibition. Defined broadly, the Sharing City is a place-based urban design and policy framework enabling citizens to share resources collaboratively, equitably and sustainably, which in turn leads to individual well-being and collective resilience.
The Sharing City comprises at least transactional and transformational sharing. Transactional sharing entails “asset sweating” or sharing resources with excess capacity often with monetary gains and is typically found in the profit-driven Sharing Economy. For example, homeowners can advertise their extra rooms on the Airbnb platform, or individuals with useful skills can perform tasks for others through the TaskRabbit platform to earn income. Transactional sharing has been rightly criticized for exacerbating inequality – consider the “shabbily” treated workers at some of the commercial sharing platforms – and the concept itself has been disparaged for misrepresenting what the word “sharing” means. Nevertheless, recent research suggests that service providers and users of commercial sharing platforms stand to gain economically by earning extra income and benefitting from lower prices. Furthermore, users also get to access resources without being burdened with the full cost of asset ownership. These advantages of transactional sharing should not be ignored especially when the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable in society.
Conversely, transformational sharing builds social capital, strengthens relationships and the resilience of communities through sharing resources, services, and support beyond the scope of marketplace exchange. Transformational sharing can be defined as a form of non-reciprocal prosocial behavior (behavior that is positive and in the interest of society) where people learn to trust other participants of sharing and come to value sharing more by practicing it. When sustained, this can consolidate into a sharing culture, where resources are pooled and managed collectively, and where new opportunities for citizens to define common interests and to collaborate are forged.
Consider the following example. When medical supplies and equipment were scarce at the onset of the pandemic, hospitals forged cooperative agreements to share supplies. Unused ventilators in New York hospitals were sent to other hospitals lacking vital equipment. And in Texas, the statewide hospital association created an online portal for member hospitals to share PPE. Not only did sharing improve equity – medical institutions gained access to the supplies and equipment they need, which in turn meant that patients could receive life-saving treatments - but not competing for access also allowed hospitals to focus on what really mattered: the continuous improvement of medical procedures and the quality of care for their patients amid an unprecedented public health crisis.
Whether this sharing behavior can further evolve to a more sustained sharing culture in the medical sector remains to be seen. But at least two things are clear. First, transformational sharing managed to save lives that otherwise would have been lost because of inadequate medical supplies and equipment. And second, transformational sharing systems are often innovations by design: They are specifically created to address resource or service gaps.
Towards the Sharing City despite the pandemic
Many sharing practices have suffered a significant setback because of the pandemic. Transactional sharing on platforms such as Uber, Airbnb and Lyft in the hospitality and travel sectors has been radically shaken by Covid-19. On the other hand, transformational sharing practices have been hampered by lockdown and social distancing. And with the hypothesis of airborne viral transmission – shared air – gaining traction, arguably, the last thing on anyone’s mind today is to share anything with strangers. Yet because of the pandemic, many more individuals and households in cities require resources and support from sharing practices than before. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the following three adaptations nonetheless suggest progress towards the Sharing City.
Sharing in turns
Earlier in the pandemic, employees took turns to use their workplaces in split teams. And in many retail outlets, to ensure equitable access, elderly and vulnerable groups received their own priority shopping hours. These examples exemplify the practice of taking turns to share resources or to access amenities, which is also consistent with the need for social distancing.
In another example, residents of a public housing block set up a small reading nook in their elevator lobby to share with children the joy of reading. Children take turns to enjoy the books, and together with their parents, they undertake the responsibility to clean them before returning any volume they used. Through this initiative, neighbors meet, and new friendships are forged. In sum, sharing in turns demonstrates that sharing practices can continue despite the pandemic.
Sharing through digital channels
The physical environment in many cities today has been augmented by a digital layer of accumulated data, sensors, and the network of apps enabled by digital infrastructure. Through the enabling technologies of this digital layer, various platforms of transactional sharing have become feasible. The pandemic has rapidly catalyzed the use of digital channels for transformational sharing.
For example, to prevent panic buying, more than 1,000 software developers in Taiwan collaborated to provide apps and other tools that could identify in real time where face masks were available early in the pandemic. These tools were very effective, which eased public anxiety and prevented the emergence of a black market for masks. In Singapore, the Scratchbac app was created to enable people living close by to collaborate, seek help, and share resources. And in Malaysia, the Sambal SOS app connected households that needed help with people who were able to provide assistance.
Innovative shared spaces
Despite the pandemic, innovative shared spaces persist. For example, new co-working spaces not only offer similar workplace conditions relative to long-term office space leases, but they can also adapt quickly to changing pandemic conditions. In one instance, alfresco workspaces, self-contained “work pods”, pocket-sized gardens and hospital-grade air-conditioning systems have been added to make sharing safer and healthier in a co-working space. In another example, new co-studying spaces have emerged to provide students with suitable places to study in the city. Protracted work-from-home policies, with parents and children sharing a domestic space for long hours, can render typical home environments unsuitable for studying. Social distancing often means strict occupancy limit in schools or libraries. The new co-studying spaces that have emerged provide venues where classmates can meet and come equipped with a shared printer, wi-fi, free flow of snacks, all for a small fee, addressing the lack of suitable studying spaces at school and at home during the pandemic.
These three adaptations demonstrate that sharing practices can still be implemented despite the pandemic. The subsequent task is for urban designers, planners and policymakers to consider how to implement various sharing initiatives in the city, sustain them, and then connect these initiatives into a larger archipelago of different sharing networks.
Chan, Jeffrey Kok Hui; and Zhang, Ye. (2020) Sharing by Design, Springer, New York, NY, USA.
McLaren, Duncan; and Agyeman, Julian. (November 2015) Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities, MIT Press. Cambridge, MA, USA.
Ravenelle, Alexandrea J. (March 2019) Hustle and Gig: Struggling and surviving in the Sharing Economy, University of California Press, Oakland, CA, USA.
Tuts, Raf; Knudsen, Christine; Moreno, Eduardo; Williams, Christopher; Khor, Neil; et al. (2021) Cities and Pandemics: Towards a More Just, Green and Healthy Future, United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). Nairobi, Kenya.
Jeffrey Kok Hui Chan
Singapore University of Technology and Design
National University of Singapore