Amsterdam has developed an Airbnb for city-owned offices, so residents can use them for free, and may do the same with municipal cars and tools.
The project is due to be launched by the city government with access to some 15 underused meeting rooms around the turn of the year, and will be extended to more rooms along with vehicles and tools if it is a success.
‘You walk through these buildings and all these meeting rooms are empty,’ Nanette Schippers, an official in the city’s Chief Technology Office and one of the creators of the project, told Apolitical. ‘It’s just a waste, especially when you know people need those spaces. We spoke to our Facilities people and they were really enthusiastic and eager to help, so we thought: let’s just start.’
“We ask: how will it contribute to the city?”
To avoid damaging the market for companies that provide office space, the project is available only to organisations that are working for a social purpose. Said Schippers, ‘We ask them things like: is your group giving any kind of social impact? What’s the meeting for? What’s your organisation doing? How will it contribute to the city of Amsterdam?’
The creators think it is realistic to eventually run the scheme with around 100 meeting rooms, but as one of the founders, Urban Innovation Officer Femke Haccou, told Apolitical, ‘We hardly know ourselves how much space we have. This could be a great moment to get an insight into that as well. We have so many buildings and so many spaces, so you can maybe understand that not every building is in a database yet.’
The rationale for access being free is that the city would be paying the associated costs – security, utilities, wear and tear – anyway. It may start to charge a minimal fee if it makes the spaces available outside office hours.
Some of the groundwork for sharing the city’s car fleet has also already been done. So that people don’t need to pick up keys and vehicles from some particular garage, the city has converted its cars so they can be opened with a smartphone. The technology came from a local start-up called We Go, which also means the cars are tracked and can be parked anywhere. The scheme has been running for a year for municipal employees.
The city government has been greatly aided in exploring the sharing economy by its close ties to local companies working in that sector. For example, it took advice on how to set up and run the project from Peerby, an app that lets neighbours request or offer things to borrow, such as hammers, tents, badminton rackets or indeed anything. It has also learned from Kirklees, a town in England, which has set up a platform on which the community can share sports equipment, allotments for growing vegetables and municipal vans, if it’s for social good.
The sharing economy, also known as the peer economy or collaborative consumption, is popular in Amsterdam, with numerous local businesses springing up and some 84% of residents open to using them. The basic principle, the best known exponents of which are Airbnb and Uber, is that people are not using the things they own, such as houses or cars, all the time; while there are other people who would like to use those things but don’t want the expense and hassle of buying one for themselves.
It’s part of a wider shift from selling goods to selling services. For example, Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport no longer buys light fittings; it pays Philips Lighting to provide light over a specified number of years. That shifts the responsibility for maintenance to the manufacturers and incentivises them to build lights that last longer instead of designing in obsolescence.
The sharing economy has created controversy around the world: Uber is presently appearing before the European Court of Justice, which is examining whether it is really merely a connection service between car owners and riders, or in fact a transport company that has to pay employee benefits. At the same time, companies like Airbnb are under increasing pressure over their tax affairs.
Countries and cities are split on how to regulate this new type of business, and the city of Amsterdam is one that has decided to embrace it. The city believes that it could promote more sustainable use of goods, reducing car ownership, improving air quality and reducing the number of new things bought overall.
The municipality has created several other pilot projects to examine how the sharing economy can be directed towards social good, either making them itself or simply bringing together the organisations it’s familiar with. These include connecting an expat organisation to Peerby, so that new arrivals in the city can put up shelves and do home furnishing without having to buy tools they only need once. Another connects sharing platforms to low-income and elderly people via the Stadspas, which gives entry to concerts and exhibitions. A third aims to promote car-sharing by offering free underground parking spaces for those who are doing so.
“The ultimate goal is far wider”
‘The potential of the collaborative economy is in every aspect of our lives really,’ said Haccou. ‘We need to be open to it and reinvent our role as a city government, because there are a lot of commercial parties that can contribute to the city in a better way than we can. It’s an exciting time. We can formulate a really smart project on this but the ultimate goal is far wider, not so tangible, a bold idea that we have to be better for our residents.’
Added Schippers, ‘I hope that our meeting room program works both ways, so that we can open up colleagues’ minds and say: there’s a lot going on out there that the city can use and benefit from. And at the same time I hope citizens will see that we are really working on the sharing economy ourselves, and will experience that we are a transparent, open government. If we want to stimulate the collaborative economy, we have to practice what we preach.’