All My Little Words

Who Shares, Wins: Brixton and the Sharing Economy

Posted in Culcha, Economics, Local by nickchristian on February 26, 2014

A few weeks ago, like a grown-up, I decided to finally hang that picture that’s been sitting around since I moved into my flat over a year ago. For that I needed a power drill. Only I’m not really a grown-up so I don’t have one, nor could I think of anyone who might be able lend me one. But then Neil lent me a power drill. Until he opened the door of his home on Strathleven Road, a mere sixteen minutes’ walk from mine, I had never met or spoken to Neil before. We don’t work together and as far as I’m aware we have no friends in common. Yet, thanks to the internet – specifically a site called Peerby – I was able to contact him, inform him of my picture-hanging problem, find out that he was able to solve it and borrow the drill. I’ll give it back tomorrow, honest. This is the sharing economy.

sharing colorful-photo-halftone-creator

For the first time in a century this generation of young people will be worse off than the one that preceded it. So, at least, goes one of the most tedious, repeatedly rolled-out remarks since the banks/rich fucked everything up, and the Tories came in and began punishing/blaming everyone except the banks and the rich for everything being fucked up.

But what does “worse off” really mean? Are we going to have fewer friends or less satisfying sex lives? Will all films star Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn and be shitty feature length adverts for massive corporations? Are our children going to be more ginger?

In fact “worse off” tends to refer only to material well-being. Still, viewed from a simply fiscal perspective, it’s hard to deny that the future for most of us will likely be more difficult. Which means we’re going to have to make do with less, yes, but we’re also going to have to adapt. One way we can do this is to join the sharing economy.

The sharing economy is a catch-all for a new but-not-really-new area of economic activity centred on the idea of “access over ownership”. At its simplest it’s very simple: if you own something but don’t use it all the time, you can make it available to others; if you need something, but don’t necessarily want to own it, you can find someone who may be prepared to supply it, for a short time and nominal fee (or even for free). To put it a simpler way, it’s more stuff being used more often, by more people.

As with so much in our lives, it’s the internet that’s made this possible, as an abundance of sites has emerged in the last few years, all with the purpose of connecting short term buyers and sellers. Pretty much anything can be shared: local listings on streetbank.com currently include a copy of Doctor Faustus, a two person tent and a Rastamouse costume. If those ingredients don’t scream “weekend in the Cotswolds” to you…

What the sharing economy means for the local economy, while hard to calculate, is not to be underestimated. A snapshot of one of the most well-known sharing sites around, Airbnb, gives a sense of the great potential of sharing. A quick search summons as many as one hundred places to stay in Brixton. These include single rooms, doubles, shared and even entire homes, ranging from £20 to £500 per night. (One optimistic soul is even offering their flat for a mortgage-watering £1000 a night. You might be expecting a few more B’s at that price.) By comparison a scan through three of the biggest hotels sites operating in the UK, hotels.com, lastminute.com and booking.com, finds not a single property closer than Clapham, with £65 the lowest price for a rather suspect night’s stay.

For locals, what this means is additional income. Ed and Natasha are Brixton’s foremost Airbnb-ers, our very own Cybil and Basil Fawlty but altogether more lovely, and do rather well out of it. Famous for fifteen minutes last year when Ed faked a short film festival at the Ritzy in order to propose, the couple currently rent out the converted loft of their three bedroom Helix Gardens home at a nightly rate of £49. A plethora of effusive reviews to their name help explain why, at the time of writing, the room was fully booked deep into 2014. Hosting this many Airbnb-ers will eventually pay for the work on the room itself, as well as making a welcome contribution to the costs of their wedding next September.

Brixton Ritzy Proposal.

Ed and Natasha – She Said Yes!

At Ed’s suggestion I join the couple at Casa Morita to discuss their sharing economy experience over quesadillas and limonada. Having called Brixton home for nearly five years it’s obvious that they love where they live and live very much locally. Having been booked “pretty much solid since the end of May”, as well as paying for the big things much of the money that they bring in from sharing will be spent a stone’s throw from their front door. The couple are also “evangelical about Brixton” encouraging their guests to explore the area, “spend money they wouldn’t otherwise have spent” and not just use it as a tube stop or a place to crash. As Natasha proudly informs me, most leave feeling like they have “discovered Brixton” and excited to recommend it to their friends as a less obvious destination.

Because of Ed and Natasha, and many others like them, word of Brixton, like it or not, is increasingly reaching beyond the borough boundaries, attracting not just foodie instagrammers from North of the river but visitors from further afield as well. Airbnb now enables Brixton to compete with central London on the accommodation front as well as gastronomically. Why should, say, a young European couple settle for a cold and unfriendly guesthouse in uninspiring Bayswater, when some of the best of London is in SW9? Why, equally, shouldn’t our area’s residents directly benefit from this demand?

Of course sharing is as much about saving money on things that don’t need to be purchased as it is earning it from things that already have been. Instead of spending several hundred pounds on a power drill you’ll use only once you could, just as I did, find someone willing to lend you one on Peerby. This can have a similarly stimulative effect on the local area, albeit a less direct one, as the money you save might be spent locally. Maybe you’ll buy drinks and snacks and invite your neighbours round to admire that (frankly, hideous) self-produced painting that you’re now able to hang on the wall. They’ll be at best polite about it but nevertheless ought to appreciate the stuffed olives and nice Beaujolais you picked up from Market Row.

power drill answers

Sharing increases our social connections too, as I discovered when I met recently with lift-sharing company BlaBlaCar, a service that essentially serves to formalise, technologise and transactionalise the process of hitchhiking. Rather than focus on the financial Vanina Schick, the company’s International Brand Manager was keen to extoll the virtues of the service, and those of the wider sharing economy, beyond the budgetary. “Ours is a social form of travel” she told me, “and spending several hours in conversation with somebody is a very enriching experience, especially when that’s someone outside of your normal professional or social circle.”

The same principal can be found at the heart of most other forms of sharing as well. While London can often feel like a metropolis of millions in which we barely nod at even our closest neighbours, sharing sites provide a practical way of breaking down those barriers. Popping round to your neighbours to ask if they have, for example, a sex swing you can borrow is probably not something you’re likely to do on spec. However if, thanks to Streetbank, you’re able to identify someone on Morval Road who has one that they’re open to lending, then not only are you saved a trip to Soho but you’re also able to meet someone new and, dare we say it, likeminded. Said neighbour probably has a power drill as well. You’ll need one.

As Neil, who lent me his, pointed out, Brixtonites are “a practical bunch”. He was prompted to signed up to Peerby when it occurred to him than “many if not most of my neighbours probably have a tool or two that they may not use that often but that they’d happily lend out. The problem, which [sites like] Peerby have more or less solved, is knowing who has what and which doors to knock on.”

Although it seems that few sharers are motivated by environmental benefits, getting involved in sharing definitely adds to one’s green cred.  On a planetary level less demand for stuff ought to mean less stuff gets produced, with fewer earthly resources devoted to doing so. Locally it’s a little more straightforward, with car clubs and car share programs like that of BlaBlaCar reducing surplus vehicle capacity, and therefore CO2 emissions.

The most authoritative recent study found that each shared car “replaces between nine and thirteen owned vehicles”.  At present there are twenty car club vehicles parked in Brixton, with seventeen of these belonging to Zipcar, while three are run by its upstart competitor City Car Club. If that calculation were to stand up, this would mean as many as 260 fewer cars in Brixton alone. In reality, in inner London boroughs such as Lambeth, where 58% of households are already car free, the impact is likely to be lower; nevertheless for those occasional drivers, who may only drive to see parents in the country or for the bi-annual flat-pack furniture purchase, the availability of car clubs or liftshare schemes may be enough to entice them to give up the Golf altogether.

zipcar in Brixton

Zipcars in Brixton

Boris Bikes – a key component of the sharing economy, even if you didn’t realise it – may have yet to arrive in Brixton but there are moves to make cycling easier in our borough. As Vivienne Thomson, until recently the Sustainability Manager at Lambeth Council, told me that the council itself owns a pool of communal bikes, enabling its staff to ride between different offices rather than drive. Lewisham goes even further than this, operating a public cycle loan scheme, in conjunction with London Cycling Campaign, which allows residents to borrow bikes for just £10 for a month.  Lambeth, with its proudly stated goal to become the most cycling friendly borough in London, could do well to follow its neighbour’s lead.

More cyclists on the road won’t, on their own, make our communities nicer. More flexibility as to how we move about, however, might. A recent book by Charles Montgomery reports that the cities in which people are happiest are those which impose the fewest restrictions on the people living in them. This facilitation of flexibility is really what the sharing economy is about: by owning fewer things, and by monopolising those things we already own less, we are freed to do more.

It’s true, as Tom Shakhli of the Brixton Pound points out, that unlike our local currency the sharing economy was not born out of a sense of social responsibility. It’s the benefits to the individual rather than the community driving it forward. Still, the benefits to the community can still be significant and not all good things need to be born out of altruistic intentions. The sharing economy has so much potential because its benefits are not limited to any given group or individual, and nor are they narrow in form. Some might find themselves saving money, others making it, while many more might better get to know their neighbours, appreciating and improving their environment in the process. What this means is that everyone is incentivised to give it a try and find ways in which it can work for them, whether by renting out a parking space, or borrowing a blender. In a knowing nod to the sharing economy Wired Magazine proclaimed 2014 to be the year when “doing stuff will overtake owning stuff”. Brixton is perfectly placed to lead the way.

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