In a recent trip to Denmark, I had a great conversation with Peter Just, co-founder of the SharingLab. As we embark upon this 4th of July weekend, consider how some of the values of this experimental business model could build on American values of community and enterprise.
Peter, what is the SharingLab?
SharingLab is based in Copenhagen, where we research and experiment with how sharing can empower urban communities. We are a little less than one year old, and are aiming at developing citizen centric solutions that can start conversations among likeminded people in the public spaces surrounding us. We are trying to build solutions that connect you with the friends you haven't met yet.
Interesting- And what is your background?
I am a university dropout! I am still missing my final thesis to get a masters degree in sociology and business administration. I have taken some additional executive courses at MIT's Sloan School of Business in high complexity problem solving, and at Stanford University in leadership for strategic execution.
I have had a very diverse career during the last 20-years, that is pretty hard to summarize in a few words. Basically it has been about creativity, design thinking, strategy, disruptive business models and solving complex wicked problems. I love complexity, and that is a key word that characterizes my career moves. A couple of highlights from the last 20 years include my work with the Danish theatre company Hotel Pro Forma and its high tech musical produced in collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the architects behind NYC's High Line project; collaborating with the Oscar award winning director Susanne Bier on a Danish film; I'm an external lecturer at several Danish university; and I've been a serial entrepreneur in the Silicon Valley and inventor, with 8 patents pending!
So, why a business model based on sharing?
We founded SharingLab because we would like to improve urban life, and try to eradicate loneliness and segregation by giving people conversation starters in the public space. We are building the service around a community ownership business model inspired by the co-ops movement. In Denmark we have a strong tradition for co-ops, and have been building companies based on that business model since 1866.
There is a paradox in cities: the more people around you, the easier it is to be lonely. That's the case even with all of the different kinds of technology that can connect us with anybody, anytime, and in real time. Studies in the UK show that 20 year olds are as lonely as 70+, even though they are more "connected" than ever. Real face-to-face people interactions has drastically fallen over the last 20 years, and according to the American psychologist Sherry Turkle we are even lonely when we are together. She calls it "connected loneliness".
Technology and social digital platforms affect the way we think and see ourselves as humans. In SharingLab we believe that technology is the perfect tool to bring people together around meaningful off-line conversations and co-created authentic experiences.
What's the connection to the much talked about "sharing economy"?
Most of the so-called sharing economy services have nothing to do with the sharing economy. Many are based on classical consumer centric business models. It's all about solving tangible needs: an apartment when you travel, a car or taxi service that can bring you from Point A to Point B or access to a cheap handyman when you need to get something fixed- all packaged in great user experiences.
And that's fine. We believe that we can take that much further. What we are offering is real offline human connectedness, by turning small objects into social objects. It is not the specific objects that are important, but their ability to start conversations with your local peers. We place the objects in the public third spaces in boxes you can access with your smartphone, giving citizens an opportunity to interact with each other.
So what is an example of turning small objects into social objects?
A lot of what we call "third spaces" are akin to a soccer field without a ball and a game. We would like to bring in "the ball, the game and the players". By providing objects in a convenient and easily accessible manner, we believe that we can turn these passive pieces of architecture into active citizen centric and joyful spaces.
Our first specific solution in SharingLab, is OurHub. It's a technology platform that makes it easy to have shared experiences in the public space. It consists of a sharing box located in places such as a park, with hardware technology built-in that makes it possible to use your smartphone to access the objects, and to track each object. On top of that we are building a social platform that can connect people surrounding you. It's a digital connection platform for offline meetings, centered around social objects. The OurHub kit will soon be available on our website and the buyer can turn any space into a social sharing space. It could be a local community initiative improving their neighborhood, or it could be municipalities upgrading their parks and playgrounds. Each hub has it's own local crowd, and what we spend a lot of time trying to figure out is how hyperlocal tribes are built.
What is the role of technology in all of this?
We use technology to bring down the transaction cost of sharing, and to make the solution accessible and convenient. That is one side of the equation. The other side of the equation is that we use the platform to collect and store user-created stories around each object to raise the value of each object. We are inspired by an experiment called "significant objects". We believe that by building an intangible layer we raise the value of the service significantly.
How are you testing this idea?
Our business model is still a work in progress, but we will start testing out different models during the next months. One of them, when it comes to scalability, is to take the Silicon Valley playbook and replace the venture capitalists, with philanthropic foundations or crowdfunding initiatives and then replace ROI with a social value model that still has to be formulated. The return has to be measurable, to convince foundations to participate on a larger scale. But it is about a greater purpose than just being driven by greed.
What is your ultimate goal with SharingLab?
We don't want to fight the existing reality, but are trying to build new models that makes the existing model obsolete. That's a Buckminister Fuller quote!
We ultimately believe that we can raise the "happiness index" by addressing the basic human need to feel truly connected in a physical local context. We would like to give people a reason to talk to each other, around co-created experiences. We see a huge need for authenticity, and humanness.