For Release Sunday, October 21, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group
SAN FRANCISCO – Each year the world’s automobile manufacturers spend a stunning half trillion dollars advertising the vehicles they’re pushing. We’ve all seen the ads – new model autos floating singly over magically traffic-free landscapes. The subliminal messages are clear: possession, power.
But if that’s been our pattern for three quarters of a century, is it necessarily prologue for a crowded, 21st-century with planet Earth, which will accommodate a billion more middle-class consumers?
Driven by today’s youth, a radically different value set and preference is emerging. It edged its way onto the agenda of an ambitious, yearly “Meeting of the Minds” conference organized by Gordon Feller, intellectual magnet and Cisco official, held here last week.
The notion’s this: Today’s young adults in their 20s and 30s, nurtured on the Internet’s vast cloud of choices, are incubating a value set of sharing rather than ownership. They’re networked and connected rather than focusing on individual, isolated belongings. They value choices and differing lifestyles – a clear break with the 20th-century model of “my car, my house, my possessions are me.”
Skeptics may counter, “Get real. Possession is the oxygen of self-identity.” And their case is strong. Booming car sales in such countries as China and India look like predictors of more personal consumerism, not less.
Yet the transportation front itself offers strong, extraordinarily hopeful indicators of new directions. As cities open more and more protected bicycle lanes, bike-sharing experiments are attracting users faster than anyone might have predicted. There are now some 200 such programs in cities worldwide.
Likewise, car-sharing systems are expanding strongly and are now estimated at as many as 1 million members in North America and 22 million worldwide.
There’s also a growing trend of so-called “peer-to-peer” auto sharing – a formalized system, with appropriate security checks on members, that lets car owners rent their autos to other users for moderate, negotiated fees.
Are those new, shared transportation systems a strong factor in world cities now? No. Even Zipcar, the largest system worldwide, still operates in just 18 major metros. The new systems are just starting to make a mark in a world with 1,000 cities of a quarter million or more people.
But just watch the rising trend, car- and bike-share experts told the San Francisco meeting. Zipcars, for example, are available on 250 college campuses, introducing the next generation to new patterns of access and connectivity.
Shared cars offer big economies for what may be resource-strained times. One study shows a single car-sharing vehicle replaces 9 to 13 owned cars; another shows that with car-sharing, a typical household could save $9,000 a year in travel costs for each vehicle it could eliminate.
The digital age is also creating new work patterns (and economic ones, too) – where, when and how work is done. The corner office may be disappearing, replaced by an open work environment that may start inside the office, then extend to nearby coffee shops and parks – with workers almost perpetually online.
Some companies have cut their desk office space and register dramatic savings. Cisco has pushed the opening of broadly distributed “smart work centers,” which save workers longer commutes. Each center offers computerized work stations and “TelePresence” conference rooms that enable contact with coworkers anywhere in the world. The company is behind 120 such centers in the Netherlands and is advising a rapidly growing group in South Korea.
A sharing economy is a powerful new model and especially appropriate to cities. That’s the argument of SPUR, San Francisco’s lead citizen planning group. It cites a host of companies – Zipcar was one leader – that help people share assets. Another, Airbnb.com, helps share rooms and apartments; Loosecubes.com shares openings for coworking; LaCocinasf.org does the same for commercial kitchen space. The list goes on and keeps expanding.
The City of San Francisco itself is encouraging sharing. Its DataSF.org website publishes real-time data sets on every area from traffic to playgrounds to public health indicators. “People then come and build their own apps based on the data,” Jay Nath, the city’s chief innovation officer, told Feller’s conference. “We’ve published 280 datasets; over 60 apps have been created.”
A fascinating opening emerges from such experiments. In a political era marked by vicious attacks on government as too big and controlling, quite the opposite appears: government as partner, facilitator, collaborator.
The sharing trend could clearly use more collaborators. Some conference participants even hoped, perhaps wistfully, that the auto companies might one day support it. (One possibility: Toyota, a “Meeting of the Minds” co-founder).
The big picture is clear. Sparked by youth and older imagineers, enabled by the Internet’s “cloud,” propelled by society’s need for efficiency and economy, the world of shared services will grow. It may lack trillions for advertising. But it suggests a more humanly satisfying future.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is email@example.com.
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