Access over ownership

There’s a building in Amsterdam’s Jordaan neighbourhood with a slogan painted on its side that translates into English as: “I play in the city with everything that’s already there.” For Harmen van Sprang, co-founder of shareNL, that phrase perfectly sums up the goal of the sharing – or collaborative – economy he’s determined to promote. “The collaborative economy taps into using everything that’s already there,” says Van Sprang. “It’s all about access over ownership.”

Sharing revolution

Although early hints of the sharing economy can be found in the home exchanges of the 1970s, technology has led to an explosion of the peer-to-peer phenomenon in recent years. By 2008 and 2009 respectively, the home-sharing site Airbnb and the ride-sharing app Uber had ushered in the collaborative economy we know today. But the sharing economy is not limited to those big names: “Although they were the first movers,” says Van Sprang, “the collaborative economy ecosystem is much bigger than Airbnb and Uber.”

Today you can share or rent almost any product or service, mostly using digital platforms. For example, that drill you got for Christmas last year or the 3-D printer in your office can be lent or rented to others via the Amsterdam-based start-up Peerby. You can share meals on Thuisafgehaald, cars on Snappcar, parking spaces on Mobypark, care services on WeHelpen and even energy on Vandebron. “It’s a new phenomenon, with people becoming sharing citizens,” says Van Sprang. “It gives individuals the opportunity to become more entrepreneurial. They’re doing something with what they already have and gaining financial stability. It’s empowering.”

Developing the collaborative economy

Van Sprang founded shareNL with partner Pieter van de Glind in 2013 to serve as a hub for developing the collaborative economy. They advise startups, corporations, governments (including the European Commission), academic institutes and cities and provide research into the sharing economy. Their goal? “A sharing society where everyone has access to all products and services that lead to a happy, sustainable and connected life,” says Van Sprang.

Sharing City Amsterdam

After shareNL’s research showed that more than 84% of Amsterdam’s residents are willing to share, Van Sprang and Van de Glind followed in the footsteps of Seoul, Korea, which had already established itself as a ‘Sharing City’. They launched the Amsterdam Sharing City project, making Amsterdam Europe’s first Sharing City in 2015. The initiative seeks to seize the opportunities the sharing economy offers while addressing its challenges, including making sure there’s a fair playing field for traditional operators and being mindful of the so-called rebound effect, where people purchase more goods – homes or cars, for example – in order to rent them out, possibly disrupting traditional housing markets or putting more cars on the road.

Still, the collaborative economy, says Van Sprang, “might be the answer to big city problems such as housing and mobility.” Indeed those promoting the sharing economy operate under a sense of urgency, pointing out that the way people presently consume is not sustainable in the long run.

Amsterdam’s sharing DNA

“Amsterdam is my city and I wanted to do something for it,” says long-time Amsterdam resident Van Sprang, who maintains that Amsterdam’s attributes lend themselves to the sharing city. “It’s in Amsterdam’s DNA. It’s a creative, dynamic, entrepreneurial and open-culture city.” Add to that an established digital infrastructure and a willingness to promote innovation and Amsterdam is the perfect breeding ground for a collaborative economy to flourish.

The City’s take on sharing

But a key ingredient in Amsterdam’s journey to becoming a sharing city is the cooperation of the municipality – the City of Amsterdam – itself. In 2015, Amsterdam launched its Action Plan for the Sharing Economy, part of a strategic move to demonstrate how cities can be involved. “They feel like a colleague, co-developing the phenomenon in the city,” says Van Sprang. “They want to embrace it. They don’t ban and authorise but rather monitor and seize opportunities. It’s a great way to address a new phenomenon in the city.”

Addressing challenges

The city’s Action Plan says “it welcomes disruption.” That may seem extraordinary for a major metropolis, but to Van Sprang, it’s the way it should be. “The sharing economy won’t go away, so you must address it,” he says. “It is disruptive, but like with Airbnb, many citizens experience advantages. So banning it is crazy. You must collaborate and form public-private partnerships.”

Airbnb is indeed a case in point. Amsterdam was an early supporter of the home-sharing site, educating its residents about the rules of engagement. By 2015, the City had signed a much-touted agreement with the company – Europe’s first – that shifted the burden of tourist tax collection to Airbnb instead of hosts. Since 2017, Airbnb’s site is keeping a count of how many days people are renting their homes so they don’t exceed the 60-day annual limit. Both the city and Airbnb call such agreements “pioneering.”

New rules, new opportunities

There are other big city players on board: alderwoman Kajsa Ollongren and Amsterdam’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Ger Baron, among them. According to Van Sprang, Amsterdam officials are constantly looking for new projects they can undertake to further the sharing city.

And they’ve already found a few. The city will soon start a pilot project that includes offering non-commercial enterprises the use of under-utilised meeting rooms. It is also linking up the Stadspas, the already existing discount travel and cultural city pass for low-income and elderly residents, to the sharing economy via platforms like Thuisafgehaald and Peerby. “The city wants to make sure the sharing economy is there for everyone,” says Van Sprang. “A city pass means access, and it’s especially great if you’re not well-off or if you don’t own something.” According to the City, when connecting the Stadspas to sharing economy platforms the benefits are twofold. When using a sharing platform such as Thuisafgehaald, which lets neighbours share home-cooked food, Stadspas holders can get a free or highly discounted, yet healthy meal. But it also means that the sharing economy is opened up to them, and they might realise they can be active on sharing platforms, too.

Tradition disrupted

Traditional businesses are also finding their way in this new economy to avoid the risk of becoming obsolete. “Companies see they have to move,” says Van Sprang. “Startups are the speedboats, while big corporations are the tankers.” Large Dutch insurance companies, including Achmea, are redesigning their policies to accommodate home sharing and peer-to-peer platforms for sharing almost anything that moves: cars, campers, motorcycles and even boats.

Worldwide sharing

ShareNL is expanding its sharing concept to the Sharing City Alliance, a city-to-city learning tool that links cities globally. Already, Van Sprang and Van de Glind have travelled to Copenhagen, Milan, Barcelona and even to Tokyo and Tel Aviv to share their know-how. If their success continues, the sharing economy may just be poised to become Amsterdam’s largest export.