Saturday, March 31, 2012

Beg, Borrow and Share: Leveraging Surplus Capacity

In an effort to create cities for the future - cities that will work for a new era of inhabitants - we can no longer employ the same prescription. A box store here, a school there, a library over there, all connected by automobile-centric roads just isn't going to cut it. These days, a growing number of people are learning to better utilize the surplus capacity present in machines, objects and even our fellow neighbors. Our cities should serve as an ideal training ground for this new wave of innovation that is bringing cost-sharing and lowered environmental impact to the needs of everyday life.

"Surplus capacity" is the difference between the maximum amount of time a machine can be used and the actual amount it is being used. Many machines or products in our lives are severely underutilized, and therefore possess a high amount of surplus capacity. We should be creative about how we can use more of this capacity, thereby reducing costs for individual households and lowering our environmental impact both at the source and at the landfill.

Consider, for a moment, your power drill. How often do you use it? According to Alex Steffen, "The average home power drill is used somewhere between six and 20 minutes in its entire lifetime depending on who you ask. And so what we do is we buy these drills that have a potential capacity of thousands of hours of drill time, use them once or twice to put a hole in the wall and let them sit. Our cities, I would put to you, are stockpiles of these surplus capacities. And while we could try and figure out new ways to use those capacities -- such as cooking or making ice sculptures or even a mafia hit -- what we probably will find is that, in fact, turning those products into services that we have access to when we want them, is a far smarter way to go."

View "The Shareable Future of Cities," Alex Steffen's TED talk, here:

The solution to lowering surplus capacity in products we don't use very often, as well as keep a little more of our money in the bank rather than on our shelves, is to engage in collaborative consumption. Collaborative consumption operates on the premise that individuals or households can rent or borrow machines when they need them, rather than purchasing them new. documents the many ways we can share, barter, lend, trade, rent, gift and swap.

Rachel Botsman, co-author of "What's Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption" gave an excellent TED talk about this movement. She talks us through the different arenas of redistribution markets, collaborative lifestyles and product service systems and gives many compelling examples of how collaborative consumption is occurring.

View "The Case for Collaborative Consumption," Rachel Botsman's TED talk, here:

Personal vehicle ownership is one arena where collaborative consumption is making an impact. According to RelayRides (via a great infographic on "the average car is used for only one hour a day," but "costs $715 a month." We are all familiar with Zipcar and other companies that have created extensive car-sharing programs. RelayRides is a new concept that allows individuals to put their cars up for rent just like zip car (but with 65% of the proceeds going to the car owner, not a corporation). Car-sharing benefits the environment: "In 2009, car sharing diminished global carbon dioxide emissions by 482,170 tons" (Frost & Sullivan).

Food also has surplus value when it is not consumed. Dumpster divers have long understood this, "harvesting" and consuming fresh and processed foods that were tossed by grocery stores for being just over their expiration date. This practice, or the practice of donating excess food to soup kitchens was often stigmatized or fraught with rules and regulations. This is beginning to change, with US Environmental Protection Agency now encouraging and giving tax incentives to businesses that donate surplus food. Other food-related sharing includes a "kitchen tool library" in Portland, Oregon that makes canning and other food preservation equipment available to local residents for week-long rental.

There's also a lighter side to "collaborative consumption." Used clothing has become a lot sexier as friends and neighbors get together for clothing swaps or "swishing parties." Lucy Shea, founder of and CEO of a sustainable communications firm describes swishing in this way: "Save money, save the planet, have a party: swishing effortlessly touches all of these buttons. Swishing parties are for all those women who want to combine glamour, environmental protection and frugality."

Personal skills and talents are surplus capacities as well. See an earlier article on "time banking," a practice in which people can log hours sharing their time or talents with a neighbor and redeem that earned time in a way that is most beneficial to them. has an extensive list of initiatives that have been launched in cities and countries around the world. These collaborations are an exciting development that should be fostered and implemented on a wider scale.


This article was featured April 2, 2012 on the Sustainable Cities Collective site.

For more information:
How 'Collaborative Consumption' is Transforming Startups, Huffington Post

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