Mention the sharing economy and those who are familiar with the term might think of Airbnb, the room-sharing service, or Uber, the ride sharing service, along with a host of other names. The sharing economy is big now, but it’s going to get much bigger, generating as much as $335 billion in global revenues by 2025.
Mention government and the sharing economy and the term “regulation” comes to mind. Numerous cities have tangled with one or more of the new services. Most recently, San Francisco tried to limit the growth of Airbnb (the referendum failed).
But when you step outside the 10 or 15 largest local jurisdictions, the picture is not so black and white. The National League of Cities released a report in June 2015 with results from a survey of its members that found 71 percent of cities support the growth of the sharing economy. And some cities are beginning to embrace the sharing economy for their own benefit. But can the sharing economy have a lasting impact on local government?
Right now, about 90 percent of government operations involve the acquisition of resources, whether they are trucks, buses or computers, said Kevin DeSouza, an associate dean for research at the College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University.
Not only are those resources costly to acquire, but they also are expensive to maintain. “The more cities spend on acquiring assets, the less they have to innovate,” he said. When a local government rents a service or some goods, it can improve how government designs and manages public resources. That’s a strong reason why local governments should pay close attention to the sharing economy, according to DeSouza.
This report, divided into sections, will examine some ways that local governments are using the sharing economy right now, and what it will take for cities to benefit from the full value of sharing resources in the public sector.
Public Libraries: Archetypes for Sharing
The sharing economy seems so new and revolutionary, yet there’s a place where the concept of sharing has been going on for more than a century. The local public library, run by government, has been a model of how to share rather than own resources. With more than 16,000 public libraries (including branches) in the U.S., this public institution is pervasive, yet is often taken for granted in terms of its position as a role model and incubator for the sharing economy.
It’s important to remember that sharing by libraries differs from the sharing economy in two ways. First, there’s no money involved in what gets shared (outside of overdue fines). Second, libraries are inclusive: Anyone can walk into a library and borrow a book or share a computer. That’s not the case with the private-sector sharing economy, where the cost to rent is a barrier for some.
Does the public library present a new model for the sharing economy? It certainly has the infrastructure and knowledge that could help sharing spread in new forms and reach new users. Already a number of public libraries have expanded their services to include repair cafes, garden sharing and makerspaces, where patrons can learn how to build things using 3-D printers and other tools. Some libraries even share appliances for patrons who don’t have the ability to buy them; others have hosted health awareness programs as a way to share resources critical to the public’s well-being.
Libraries also have a big intangible: trust. The public has come to rely on libraries to provide resources and the professional assistance needed to understand how to use them. That’s important if the sharing economy is going to expand beyond renting rooms and rides.