Interview — Neal Gorenflo

Neal Gorenflo is the co-founder of Shareable, an award-winning news, action, connection hub for the sharing transformation. An epiphany in 2004 inspired Neal to leave the corporate world to help people share through Internet startups, publishing, grassroots organizing, and a circle of friends committed to the common good.

What are the current discussions surrounding the ‘sharing economy’ that interest you, and why?

At Shareable we’re interested in the criticism of the sharing economy, that it’s just an extension of capitalism rather than something transformative. It’s interesting as this backlash against the sharing economy is inspiring entrepreneurs to start enterprises that combine cooperative style ownership and governance of the organisation with a sharing economy type platform.

We published the first feature story covering this new wave of companies, “Owning is the New Sharing,” by Nathan Schneider. You can think of this as sharing economy 2.0 or as some people are calling it, platform cooperativism.

This could enable cooperative enterprises to scale quickly. They would have sharing at the enterprise level, in terms of the organisation, and also on the platform where users create value. In
other words, those who create most of the value on a platform are also owners and decision makers in the enterprise. This new way to organize platforms has great transformational potential versus a typical VC funded tech startup which are transactional and don’t build new, empowering social relations between users.

We’re interested in platforms that build durable social ties and exercise the collaborative muscles of groups. Because often what happens is that a group begin at one level of collaboration, that might be very simple and focused, and this can lead to a new developmental trajectory where more sophisticated and impactful collaborations emerge. This will never happen with Uber or Airbnb, because they don’t build durable social ties between users and they aren’t exercising people’s civic muscles as much, even though they create more social business transactions.

What can we learn about collaboration from the ‘sharing economy’?

This goes back to how you define the sharing economy. We’ve always defined it very broadly and focused on the transformational potential, rather than looking at it from a strictly traditional economic perspective. What we can learn from enterprises and projects that aim to create transformational experiences is that it takes skill, time and patience. You start in a certain place, and through iteration, lots of time and trust building, you can get to a place that offers a radically different, empowering experience where there’s solidarity and new power relations. So you have to be super committed and address real needs.

For example, the Enspiral Network in New Zealand launched 4-5 years ago, linking social entrepreneurs and freelancers that work toward the common good. They started by experimenting with how to operate as a collective.  Through trial and error, they’ve come to a place where there are 150+ people and dozens of legally distinct enterprises that operate as one economic unit. They help each other attract business, create a collective budget, and create projects that help the collective. One of the projects they created is Loomio, which is a collective decision making tool used for running their network. It’s open source and available to other enterprises and social movements, but it’s taken them a number of years to create it with lots of mistakes and dead ends.

How can we employ the ‘sharing economy’ to empower urban communities?

I really like, as a starting place at least, these very accessible and simple innovations like the stickers on mailboxes that show what you have to share with your neighbours and Neighbourhood Exchange Boxes that help people exchange goods. Just a few dozens of these in a city can reduce waste and redistribute tons of goods over time. Another example is the Little Free Libraries. There are now over 28.000 little free libraries all over the world and they’ve become mini-centers of literacy, learning and social connection. These kinds of projects can get a community on a new trajectory where sharing, collaboration, and helping each other is at the core of what they do. So it’s also very practical.

So you can start with something simple, like Neighbourhood Exchange Boxes or Little Free Libraries. Before you know it, you can build on small success to create bigger successes, like forming a child care coop, a solar coop, or even a school.

There’s an example of this in Seoul, South Korea where the community of a neighbourhood called Sungmisan Village was catalysed to save a nearby forest from development. Their campaign to save their forest brought the community together. They leveraged their civic energy to create all kinds of micro-services within their neighbourhood of about 700 families. Now they have a child care coop, an elementary school, a coop for purchasing green goods, and a slew of social clubs around various interests like photography and gardening. They started a movement. Now other neighborhoods are copying them. The city government is also now supporting the development of other urban villages. So you can start with something small, like a babysitting coop, and then more elaborate collaborations can emerge down the line.

People start with something small, they enjoy it, it’s practical and they benefit from it, so they start asking questions like; “What else can we do?” This is the kind of transformation that we get really excited about at Shareable. We call it the “sharing transformation” where an individual or a community cross a thresthold and start living in a completely different, more rewarding, and resource responsible way.

What is the future of the ‘sharing economy’?

Technologist Alan Kay said: “The best way to predict the future, is to create it”. So we don’t like to make predictions, we like to ask what people want and then help them create it together. It’s important to see this shift happening as a question and an opportunity. So the question is not what is going to happen but: What do we want to happen? What kind of lives do we want? What kind of cities do we want? and then go for that.

You can follow Neal on Twitter.