The Sharing Economy

ARTICLE | Apr 27, 2017

By Karen Thoreson

There has been an incredible amount of discussion over the past 24 months about the new sharing economy. The conversation has ranged from how local governments should regulate, protect their residents, and interact with entities that have discovered a direct link between residents and newly identified service providers.

It has sparked serious questions about the future of work in a world where people increasingly become private contractors rather than employees who were afforded the labor protections that government has worked for decades to provide.

Lately, I have been thinking a little differently about this topic. My thoughts have been drawn to these questions: How could local government mimic some of the benefits of the sharing economy in its relationship with residents? Can local government harness that power and yet operate within the ethical boundaries that guide us?

Fundamentally, the sharing economy is about identifying underused assets (labor, equipment, vehicles, or unoccupied rooms) and linking them to demand. This is often a demand that has been unrecognized or underestimated.

Who would have anticipated that people would enter a private vehicle of a stranger for a ride to the airport? Who would have believed that an individual would rent a room in a private home from people they have never met?

We have, of course, seen that they will and they do. So can local government do the same? First, can our local governments harness underused assets within their own organizations and link them to consumer demand?

And secondly, perhaps even more powerful, can local governments help to harness the excess community capacity to build a sharing economy within their own boundaries?

Harnessing Assets

As I contemplated these issues, it was first difficult to imagine how to do the former. Localities can't easily distribute more water, public safety, or trash services to those who want or need more. With a little more examination though, I began to think about disposal of Christmas trees or green waste, which in turn is converted into compost used by communities and residents.

Likewise, many libraries hold annual book sales of undercirculated materials and provide an affordable product to residents and a small revenue stream for themselves. Increasingly, governments are opening their data portals to residents who analyze the data to produce new information or new approaches to solving problems.

The citizen scientist movement, where residents report rainfall or temperature, is a good example. Or, you only need to think back multiple decades to recognize that neighborhood watch programs extended the eyes and ears of public safety to engage many more people in the job of keeping us all safe.

The second question of leveraging underused community assets, however, holds even more promise and is quietly being pursued in many places today. Think about the "mini birdhouse" corner libraries we have seen pop up in neighborhoods across the country.

With local help, simple structures are constructed and installed in the public right-of-way; residents stock those with private unwanted books, and the exchange of "underused assets" begins.

Likewise, for decades, we have seen cities experiment with pocket parks in unwanted public right-of-ways. Communities have ceded these spaces to residents to plant community gardens, simple playgrounds, or quiet seating areas.

Finally, a newer phenomenon of pop-up retail is taking hold, where communities allow streets or sidewalks to be temporarily vacated for farmers markets, performance spaces, or other commercial uses.

The Roots of a Trend

I started my public service career in the unlikely environment of community food co-ops. In the 1970s, hundreds of communities and neighborhoods started local food co-ops, making small individual investments to secure a storefront, volunteering their time to order food, and stocking it or transacting sales.

In the Midwest, these co-ops grew quickly to move past food, to providing bike co-ops, clothing co-ops, producer co-ops, and even banking co-ops for community members. Those efforts had no government initiation and often no government help.

Recognizing the benefits achieved in the sense of community built through those efforts, now we see local governments helping with seed cash or low-interest loans to get things started.

Spartanburg, South Carolina, is a great example of a community that stepped up to help its local food co-op raise funds to open its doors. It provided a $250,000 loan to help the community establish a grocery store downtown and also get community members connected to one another. Visit to learn more about how this effort started and how it is flourishing.

In Madison, Wisconsin, the Dane County TimeBank ( solicits time and skills from community members, which is in turn exchanged with others who need those skills. Think trading babysitting for computer repair, or providing bookkeeping services for help tending a backyard garden. The possibilities are endless.

Engaged Communities

My challenge to our community of local governments is what else is possible? How can you identify, convert, and market your personal or organizational assets into something others want? How can local government refine the sharing economy from "all tech" to an engaged community sharing its assets?

The brainstorming on this idea could truly get your community's creative juices flowing. If your community is building or has built its own sharing economy, reach out and share that with me. The Alliance wants to see how you are developing your own community sharing program one resident at a time. Perhaps I can share these innovations in a future PM article.


Karen Thoreson is president, Alliance for Innovation, Phoenix, Arizona (


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