A few weeks
ago I participated in an amazing 4 day gathering of about 100 people from all
over the world in Svalbard – way up North.
invited by The Aurora Borealis Foundation, a Swedish-Chinese organization,
which works to explore ways in which human civilization can adapt to the
rapidly changing conditions we live in.
It was one
of those occasions where you run out of superlatives. It was very intense,
touching, inspiring, scary and beautiful.
tried to assemble my reflections in the following page, starting from the
in-adequacy of our words to express and capture the challenges we face.
Svalbard gathering was very much about words. Listening, discussing, and searching
for words to create a new narrative from which we can understand our situation
and act to pursue a better world.
acute it seems to create change, and how complex the challenges we face are,
the words we can come up with may seem inadequate, even banal. Clearly, words
alone are not enough to convey the depths of what we are trying to express – it
takes music, images, dancing… and action, of course.
less, the language we use is important. Words and categorizations define and
delimit our thinking. An important part of the change we need is to move beyond
old categories and to re-define some central terms.
Words like ”growth”,
”productivity” and ”development” are losing their usual meaning, changing from
positive to negative as more conventional growth increasingly seems like less
our new narrative, we need to acknowledge that ”value” and ”money” are not the
same. Certainly, there is overlap, but much of what it most valuable to us has
very little monetary value - like love, community, harmony, joy, trust, or the
beauty of nature.
is an immensely powerful engine of creation – but there’s a bug in the operating
system: Money is the only value it can measure. The economy is set up to
maximize the production of money, and that is what it single-mindedly delivers,
even if it means neglecting and destroying other values that give our lives meaning.
Now, we must fix the algorithm to make the system create values beyond money.
We must demand that, which we really want the economy to produce.
between rationality and mystery is another core issue that we lack words to
reconcile. Science can wrestle solid facts from the fog of mystery, gradually
turning what used to reside in the metaphysical realm into laws of nature,
which can be predictably calculated and operationalized. Still, there is always
another layer below, which we simply don’t understand.
our worldviews into either being atheist or religious seems to prevents us from
addressing and seeing the world as it is. Can’t we insist on scientific
reasoning and demand hard facts as the basis for thinking and decision making –
while remaining in awe of the mystery and beauty of it all? Can’t we have
agency and assume our responsibility to act to improve the world around us –
yet realize that, ultimately, we are completely at the mercy of much greater
powers beyond humans?
narrative of our future is about co-existing with paradoxes and opposites. We
are becoming ever more connected and interdependent. We should see diversity
and increased complexity as an enrichment, rather than a threat to our
Yet, how do
we then insist on preserving that, which we will not compromise on? Are all values
relative and negotiable – or are there absolutes; values which we know are right and which we will defend
without compromise? What is so sacred that you cannot question it? And what shall
we do if we find that others do not agree?
yin/yang symbol beautifully shows how every element carries its opposite
within. There is no renewal without destruction, no life without death, no
victory without the seeds of future loss. Up and down, round and around. Inching
our way up the evolutionary ladder.
many of the findings from my own work.
research for the We-economy project, I have not come across any sharing
services of the sharing-among-neighbors kind, that are actually making money.
Even Street club, the British service operated by Kingfisher DIY stores, has
folded its activities into a grassroots organization called Street Bank,
supported by grants. I talked to both Kingfisher and to the manager of Street
Bank, and they are quite clear, that this sort of activity cannot survive on
purely commercial terms.
sharing services can have value beyond money. They can strengthen social
cohesion and have environmental benefits – but they cannot generate money in
significant quantities. In a sense, that’s actually the point: That they remove
revenue and offer savings for participants.
The many different outfits that are currently operating under the ”sharing economy”
label really belong to very different categories. There are commercial,
micro-rental services like Uber and airbnb – and there are actual sharing
services, which by nature are rather non-profit, but may be valuable in other
that this last, non-commercial category of sharing platforms might be
considered a new type of public service – like state-owned media or libraries.
public services have been functions in society for which it was clearly in the
general interest of society that everyone had access – but which would not be
established if left to the market forces.
of creating these services might be too long-term, or the rewards might be
in-direct, cultural, and hard to monetize. Radio and Television channels,
libraries, postal service or the telephone network are examples of large-scale
services, which were operated by the public sector. Being public services, they
upgraded everyone to the next level of societal participation and thereby
supported further development and a higher general standard of living.
recently worked in a Danish ministerial think tank on smart cities, and one of
my conclusions from those discussions are, that as we move towards smart
cities, we will need a basic platform for coordinating everyday activities that
is non-commercial – otherwise some very fundamental aspects of what is
available and acceptable will be controlled by Google, Facebook etc.
commercial giants do a great job, but I believe that there is a need for some
additional levels of service provided on a non-commercial basis if we want to ensure
that everyone has decent access and reasonably equal opportunity to participate
this could be the type of concepts found in the sharing economy: Services to share tools, meals, houses, cars,
gardens and parking spaces. Digital platforms that connect people with skills
and a wish to help users that need assistance with small tasks. Electronic
bulletin boards, which allow the inhabitants in a local community to announce
or discover social and cultural activities.
services can connect community members and build up social capital and
coherence – and they should be part of the smart cities of the future. But they
are not commercially viable.
All of this leads to the conclusion that it is
entirely reasonable to explore if the next type of public service suitable for
tomorrow’s smart cities should be a ”citizens network”, established and funded
by the government.
about such networks in terms of public service allows us to be less apologetic
for the fact that you can’t wring enough money out of them to make them work as
business – and it allows us to think much more ambitiously about the
functionality of the networks.
network featuring these types of services could create better communication
among citizens, it could make it much more transparent what takes place in the
local community, it could create new ways of participating in local democracy,
it could be the ”help desk” for the information society… And the more functions
the network would integrate (including private services and local media), the
better chances are that it could indeed reach critical mass of use and users to
become the preferred app for interacting with all things local.
be the next version of a true sharing economy.