Neal Gorenflo: “The human beings are master collaborators”

Text: Arturo Nicolás and Iris C. Permuy | Versión en castellano

To have the possibility of chatting with him is a true privilege. Neal Gorenflo, co-founder of Shareable, is part of a group, along with Rachel BotsmanAntonin LéonardLisa GanskyArun Sundararajan or Albert Cañigueral and others, that leads the growth of the sharing economy worldwide -this is achieved through their publications, talks or their own platforms.

This interview, as I said, is a true privilege to be a part of. A chat with an expert like Neal about such a passionate topic like the sharing economy, rapidly becomes a masterclass in the next-coming revolution; a paradigm shift that is already on and will change our way to understand the world and human relationships.

Before reproducing the conversation, we should jot down the link of free download of Neal Gorenflo’s book that he and his Shareable team have written: Share or die: Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis, which is essentially collection of messages from the front lines in issues that threaten the survival of our species nowadays.

On top of that, Shareable is particularly useful due to the Sharing Cities Network; a project that matches thousands of people to build the new collaborative era together. Finally, the report that Neal and his team have written about suitable policies for shareable cities is especially recommended: you can get it here.


Arturo Nicolás.: We can start talking about 2004, when you decided to live a different life. Why?

Neal Gorenflo: Well, honestly I just didn’t think I could become the type of person I wanted to become, or have the type of life I wanted, and I thought that sharing could have the chance, or I had the hunch at least that a lifestyle based on sharing could deliver the kind of things that I wanted; the kind of experiences and relationships and community that I wanted in life. And I thought I could realise my creative potential as a human being, so that’s the main reason. And the kind of set up there was I was working for a big multinational corporation. I worked there for a couple of years. The people I worked with were fine, it was more the sort of culture and set up of working for such a big corporation and part of the global economy, I mean, In two years we moved three times, the headquarters moved three times, and so I was literally chasing this phantom, you know, like I was working in Redwood City, then San Francisco, then Brussels, and I think they even moved again after I left. This was really uprooting me from everything that I loved – from my community in San Francisco, doing really cool projects I wanted to get involved in, and my girlfriend at the time, and now wife, Andrea, and also just being alienated from my own purpose, and myself in important ways, so…

A.N.: What is first to explain the sharing economy’s success: Economic reasons or ethical reasons?

N. G.: Um, I think it’s because it’s very practical and productive that you can get more done for less. I think the old economy has reached a kind of limit, so the time has come for sharing. I mean it’s always been around and it’s a core feature of human beings. I think it’s why we have become the dominant species on planet Earth, it’s because we are master sharers and collaborators, and it will be how we will save ourselves and the rest of life on the planet as well. We need to re-direct it to different ends, or new ends, to continue to thrive on planet Earth.

A.N.: This year you were in the Ouishare Fest in Paris and Fórum Impulsa in Spain. What do you think about the rise of the sharing economy in Europe? Where is it stronger, in the United States or in the old continent?

N.G.: It all depends on how you define the sharing economy. My perspective from travelling and visiting different sharing communities around the world is that every community has something you need to offer. You know, in Spain even though it’s having its issues now, it’s an inspiration the world over. And in the United States especially, there’s much to be learned from that. There’s open source wireless network, twenty thousand nodes, you know, organised wireless network. In Paris, you’ve got ground-breaking bike-sharing and car-sharing systems, probably the best, maybe, arguably the best in the world. At least the bike-sharing really broke open the bike-sharing market, and innovated a model which caught on, and catalysed the boom in bike-sharing. And take a look at Vienna, Austria which has the incredible public housing and co-operative housing that keeps the lid on rent and housing costs in the city, which is the number one or most liveable city in the world. You know, a couple of times voted that in the last five years. So it all depends on where you are. Each place has something to offer and that’s why we started the sharing cities network, to catalyse learning between cities and how different cities are managing resources in different ways.

A.N.: Following the Jeremy Rifkin sort of approach, are we living a new Industrial Revolution? What is the key to this? 

N.G.: Well, the Third Industrial Revolution, what he says is that new communication and energy regimes, so, the Internet combined with distributed energy technologies, which re-order social relations from a top-down factory model society to more pure relations, with the potential for more equity. I mean I think that’s a potential, though it has to be shaped and sought after, It’s not delivered as a present to us, it needs to be fought for. The Net’s also part of why we exist, the reason why the co-founded exists is to wake people up to the potential for transformed social change that is offered to us at this juncture, with the decline of the old economy and the emergence of new values and new technologies and to act on it, make it happen, make it work for us, as people and planet.

A.N.: Who are the enemies of the sharing economy? 

N.G.: Well, a sort of positive long term view of this is that there are no enemies, that there are only friends. There are enemies that are waiting to be converted, right? I think that this is a big paradigm shift. It strikes at the foundation of the global economy, of our society, how we consume, produce, govern and finance our world, and so the friction points are man: Culture, regulation, law, our own imaginations about what’s possible. So I think there are tonnes of work to do and I’m really excited about it, I think it’s a huge and fun challenge, a challenge that I think has the potential to bring out the best in our species, in humans.

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A.N: These days we heard about the case about a woman who hosted a man who finally became a squatter. This case is unusual, but in the media there was a big furore. Curious, isn’it?

N.G.: Yeah, you know, women and squatters such a big story? I think it’s the novel character of the story, that the sharing economy is this big global phenomenon and news, it has lots of media interest, and here comes this little piece here, that, it just has a great hook, that’s why it’s interesting and I think generally in the media we’re in a period where we have gone beyond boosterism or cheerleading to do more substantive critique and analysis, some of it I think unfair, or not well considered, and some of it very well done and well considered.

A.N.: Neal, I am a big fan of platforms like Wikihouse and I think maybe those kind of projects can fight inequality in our world. Could it be possible that the sharing economy has a social purpose?

N.G.: Yeah, definitely, we strongly believe in that idea, and we are focusing most of our attention on projects such as Wikihouse says, they not only help people share on the platform, but the people are the platform. They are the owners, and they drive it, right? And that’s what we would like to see more of, and I think that we will see more of, because the economics are there. I think we’re not far away from a fair system, where the hosts actually own the platform as part of a co-operative, or a collective form which divides the spoils much more fairly than what we see now with the typical Silicon Valley style start-up where the most of the rewards go to a few founders and investors.

A.N.: You are talking about communities, citizens, etc., and at the moment we can see that citizen platforms like fab labs or makespaces, among others, are trendy. It seems that citizens are producers again.

N.G.: Right, I think we’re returning to something that is fundamental about human beings, that we are creative…

A.N.: …definitely.

N.G.: I think that maybe we are in this little period in the twenty-first century where only a relatively small percentage of human beings took a break from producing and we became consumers and had this consumer culture. I think that actually is an anomaly and I think we are returning to something more fundamental, that we make our world and we make it together.

A.N.: Last question: What’s the meaning of trust in the new sharing era?

N.G.: Well, trust I think is really important and in some of the platforms, it’s key to get strangers to share resources, and we see things like reputation systems, ratings, rankings, leader boards, profiles and identity checks, all to increase trust between strangers and this enables us to scale sharing beyond tribe and family, to people we don’t know and maybe people we would never meet, or that maybe historically there has been friction between. So, it’s very hopeful in that way. In other ways, it’s also a little bit overblown. What is more important is social capital, which is a combination of three things: trust, reciprocity and social connection. And those three things together as social capital build a kind of capacity that enables groups to do all kinds of things together. To respond to crisis, and to respond to opportunity and find ways to share, produce and govern. That isn’t possible without social capital, so trust is an important piece, but not the only piece, I think the bigger thing to look at is social capital.