torsdag 16 april 2015

Tools for sustaining not-for-profit grassroots sharing initiatives

After almost two months of work, we finally handed in an EU application earlier this week, "SHARE IT: Tools for sustaining not-for-profit grassroots sharing initiatives".

Our application is a response to the call "Collective Awareness for Sustainability and Social Innovations" (CAPS) and it is part of the much larger 2014-2020 EU Horizon 2020 research program. This call was particularly interesting for us, sprouting references to "collaborative consumption", "new collective models for value creation beyond monetisation", "sustainable behaviours and lifestyles", "bottom-up solutions grounded on real communities", "grassroots actors", "participatory innovation paradigms" as well as harnessing "open data, open source and open hardware" as well as "ICT networks, network effects and collective intelligence for cooperation, supporting new economic models beyond GDP". There really was no end to the long list of attractive terms and concepts in the invitation to write research grant applications. Beyond the stuff they wanted, there was also an interesting list about applications they did NOT want (capitals in original - see this downloadable powerpoint presentation):
   - Proposals without a clear existing (and physical) community of motivated users
   - Proposals that were technology-driven, or aiming at purely commercial solutions
   - Consortia without at least two partners which are focused on non-ICT disciplines

There are three research partners in our proposed project; Lancaster University (UK), KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden) and the think tank Demos Helsinki (Finland). The people who have been most involved with the application are Adrian Friday (Lancaster), Daniel Pargman, Elina Eriksson and Karin Bradley (KTH) and Airi Lampinen (Demos). KTH is one institution but two different schools (and departments) are involved in the application, my own School of Computer Science and Communication (CSC) as well as the School for the Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE). If the application is successful, we plan to hire a post-doc at KTH to work 100% in the project for either two years or for three years (which is the full duration of the project).

The project is divided into four different parts, called Work Packages (plus a fifth for management). They are all interconnected but still roughly correspond to empirical fieldwork (WP1), theoretical analysis (WP2), design and construction of a software platform (WP3) and requirements elicitation and evaluation of the platform (WP4). While any researcher might work in several of the work packages, Demos will be responsible for WP1, KTH ABE for WP2, Lancaster for WP3 and KTH CSC for WP4.

Except for the academic partners, we also have three project partners, i.e. grassroots initiatives that practice the sharing economy. These are Skjutsgruppen (ride sharing), Restaurant Day (pop-up temporary restaurants) and Hoffice (pop-up temporary workspaces) as well as an "impact partner", the OuiShare network. OuiShare do several things but the two things they do that is of most relevance to this project is that 1) they organise the OuiShare Fest, an an annual festival and conference that brings together people to celebrate and share knowledge of best practice and 2) the activities of the OuiShare Labs​, working with open source tools for sharing initiatives and sharing-related projects.

I think many parts of this project are exciting. We are very fortunate in that two of the applicants (Airi and Karin) already work in and have published scientific results about collaborative consumption and the sharing economy. That fact and their knowledge strengthens our application tremendously! The other three main applicants (me, Adrian, Elina) on the other hand bring knowledge of computing and sustainability to the project, so it definitely feels like this constellation of people would be able to accomplish things together that any actor could not do alone. I have myself worked some with the sharing economy, not the least since that was the topic that I explored together with 65 master's level students in the project course "Future of Media" during the whole 2014 autumn term. Me and Elina are also developing an international master’s level specialisation at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, “Sustainable Information Society” that will start 18 months from now. There are major synergy effects between this proposed research project and that specialisation; we could for sure use results from the project in the courses in question (including in the planned project course) and we could also recruit students to conduct research and write their master's theses within the larger research project.

While Karin Bradley at the KTH ABE School will be responsible for the theoretical (2nd) work package, I personally expect to spend some time working within that package too. That would give me and Karin the opportunity to develop some ideas we discussed already three years ago in a previous application of ours (that we did not get funding for). The 2009 Economics Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom spent the major part of her life studying how real communities succeed or fail at managing "common pool resources" such as land for grazing, fishing waters, forests etc. While she only studied finite (so-called "rival") resources - each fish can only be caught by one fisherman - we are on the other hand interested in how her findings can be applied to collaborative consumption and the sharing economy. We will use her principles for successful communal governance of such resources but also expect that they might have to be modified or developed in the context of the sharing economy where resources to some extent can be created out of this air (e.g. there is extra space in my car that I can offer to others at almost no extra cost to me).

The process of writing the application itself has for the most part been very fruitful, despite the fact that many parts of an EU application can be onerous to write. Still, after a concentrated effort that went into frenzy mode the last week, it is really nice to have handed in the application. We now lean back, cross our fingers and hope for the best. As a parting gift, here is part of the opening salvo of the application:

"The growth of the sharing economy and developments of state of the art online platforms are perfectly timed to help societies find new ways of working, of building community, and of promoting different and more sustainable ways of living.

The sharing economy encompasses commercial, for­profit, sharing platforms as Airbnb and Uber, but also a myriad of citizen­managed not­for­profit sharing schemes, such as a movement of turning homes to temporary “pop­up” collaborative office spaces (Hoffice), as well as platforms for sharing stuff, dinners or rides. These grassroots sharing initiatives are social innovations and have grown in a context of large youth unemployment and a labor market harboring increasing numbers of freelancers and different forms of temporary employment. The appeal of these sharing practices and the rationale for engaging in them may be economic, social and/or environmental; part of their power and their potential impact lies in leveraging several or all of these factors.

Sharing economy initiative or ‘startups’ ­ both commercial and non­commercial ­ can however face challenges that drastically affect their viability and long term success. Encouraging growth and replication of grassroots sharing initiatives implies a need for the maturing and scaling up of software tools (platforms) so that they can help handle more instances of an initiative, often meaning both more participants and a greater number of locations.

The scaling­up of an initiative does not only challenge the technical infrastructure (i.e. the set of software tools that are used to run the initiative in question), but also puts the spotlight on social issues such as access, trust, reputation, conflict­resolution mechanisms and regulation. It consequently becomes very important to think about the intersection of social and technical systems, e.g. of the so­called “socio­technical design cycle”.
The best way to explore socio­technical systems is thus iteratively, refining the software and carefully studying the consequences, as well as by thoroughly mapping the needs of the community and converting these into requirements for the (next version of the) software platform." 

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