How Web Sharing Sites Can Save The Planet

Using the web to help people share “stuff” has become a hot commodity as of late. Sites like peer-to-peer apartment rental Airbnb have been generating some serious attention over the past few weeks, a book on the subject of web-based collaborative consumption comes out next week, and car sharing services from Zimride to Zipcar have been expanding rapidly. As co-author of the upcoming book Rachel Botsman puts it in an interview in this September’s Wired Magazine issue, “We’re facing a revolution in the way we think of ownership,” and it’s being driven by the Internet.

But I think there’s another often overlooked aspect at the heart of this cultural shift: how to manage constrained resources sustainably in the face of massive population growth centered around cities. There will be an estimated 9 billion people on the planet in 2050 — more than 2 billion than there are today — and largely that population growth will happen in cities. According to the United Nations around 70 percent of the world population will live in cities or urban areas by 2050, up from 49 percent today.

At the same time the population grows — and partly because of it — the planet is facing a shift to a new era of constrained resources. Fossil fuels, and thus the traditional way we generate energy, is increasingly appearing unsustainable due to a number of factors: burning fossil fuels causes climate change, the imbalanced concentration of fossil fuels creates global political instability, and the idea that the world’s available known petroleum reserves have peaked (and if you don’t believe in that, then you can agree that fossil fuels are a finite resource, unless you want to wait a million more years for organic matter to carbonize).

When There’s Too Many People

So how do you provide energy, goods, water, and food for 9 billion people, who will concentrate in cities, on one planet, which isn’t getting any bigger any time soon? There’s going to be a lot more sharing involved. And we can thank the Internet — for the first time in history — for delivering a network that is far-reaching enough, low cost enough, and easily accessible enough, to facilitate that kind of sharing between strangers.

Many of the early successful collaborative consumption driven websites have tended to emerge around cities, like car sharing service Zipcar, for example, which enables subscribers to rent out shared vehicles that are parked at public locations in cities. Cities have limited parking spaces and garages, while residents are often times already commuting via public transportation, so car ownership is less of a necessity.

As an avid City Car Share member (a company that is basically a non-profit version of Zipcar) I can tell you from my own experiences that I’m only able to weave the car sharing service into my daily life, and not own a car, because there’s so many City Car Share cars clustered in my urban neighborhood in San Francisco. It would be difficult to repeat the experience in suburbia, where owning a car and commuting to work is a necessity.

Densely populated cities offer the optimal environment for this type of sharing. There’s not a big incentive to get involved in a sharing web site — say, to find or loan a drill (which was the inspiration for Zilok) or a car  — with your neighbors when there’s few neighbors and few goods to choose from. Or at least you don’t need an Internet service to help facilitate that — you probably already know who to ask in a small community. Small dwelling spaces in cities also go hand in hand with web-based sharing services, and the studio apartment owner could prefer to rent peer to peer goods, rather than own and have to store something in a small apartment.

Efficient Use of Resources

The Internet — though its social network capabilities — is uniquely able to break up the ownership of a good into an efficiently managed service revolving around access. Basically you can eek out a whole lot more use out of a good when you can finitely manage the time and usage of it within a specific population.

Author Rachel Botsman explained the environmental aspects of collaborative consumption in an email to me through the idea of “idling capacity,” or the waste that exists in the stuff we own but rarely use. For example, the car that sits idle twenty-three hours a day or the spare bedroom that is rarely used. In the U.S., Botsman says “80 percent of the items people own are used less than once a month,” and collaborative consumption is “the reckoning of how we can take this idling capacity and redistribute it elsewhere.”

The ultimate idea is to have our economy value units of usage over units sold, and then the notions of “eco-efficiency and business efficiency align,” explains Botsman. In that world, sustainable design and longevity of goods become much more important in the production process. Car sharing might represent one of the largest available efficiency gains and Botsman says that “one car share gets approx 7-8 vehicles off the road.”

Internet As Enabler

The Internet is also uniquely able to facilitate these collaborative consumption sites because it can build trust among strangers. Zimride CEO Logan Green told me that a trusted ecosystem is at the heart of the Zimride ride-sharing service, and, for example, three companies that work in an office park are comfortable pooling together their users for rides because they’re corporate neighbors. Or college students know that the other car-poolers on Zimride will be other students, so there’s a level of trust that the ecosystem provides. Airbnb provides reviews and a social network function to help build trust for its renters and rentees.

Web-based collaborative consumption is all part of how the Internet can use bits to allocate atoms. In the cases of Airbnb and Zimride, it’s using bits to share atoms. In other cases, like digital music downloads replacing CDs, or e-books replacing paper books, it’s bits replacing atoms. In some circles replacing physical goods, with digital ones, is called dematerialization, and we organized a panel around the topic for our last Green:Net 2010. When it comes to energy efficiency and sustainably managing resources, bits will be the answer to effectively allocating atoms.

For more research on the intersection of green and IT check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Car Data As the Next Platform for Innovation

The Real Reason Google Is Buying Wind Power

Beyond the Battery: Building A Better Battery Business

Images courtesy of Zipcar, Zimride, Katie Fehrenbacher, and ~Firas‘ Flickr page Creative Commons.