Bringing Small-Town Sharing to Big City Life

Barely four years ago, Daan Weddepohl’s apartment burned down. “I lost everything,” he says, taking a moment to lean his gigantic $5,000 novelty cheque against the wall. “Not only my living space. Around that time I also lost my job, my girlfriend broke up with me – all I had left were friends and family. And I realised that it’s more important to be surrounded by the people you love than the things you own.”

It got him thinking: why does everyone feel the need to purchase their own private set of consumer items – a hammer, a tent, a badminton racket – that everyone else has, and that lie unused most of the time?

Why not encourage people to share stuff with each other, the way neighbours once did before cities made us more anonymous?

He turned the idea into the sharing service Peerby, which just won Weddepohl that oversized cheque at the AppMyCity competiton for best urban app, held as part of the New Cities Summit in Dallas, Texas. The app is simple: Peerby users can send out a request for an item they want to borrow. Other users are notified of the requests near them, and can accept if they feel like sharing – a kind of temporary freecycling. He opens Peerby on his iPhone to show me a map of his neighbourhood in Amsterdam: a sea of Peerby logos, with dozens of users on every street.

“I want every city to become a sharing city,” he says. That sentiment was heard frequently in the Winspear Opera House over the last couple of days, as corporations, consultants and mayors met in the 35-degree Texas heat to join in singing the praises of, among other things, the shared economy. Airbnb and Uber are just the highest-profile of these new technology-enabled services. One of the runners up to Peerby was Djump, a “social ridesharing” service that acts something like a hitch-hiking app. The third finalist from the 90-plus applicants was Social Cyclist, an app that allows users to share cycling routes and information with each other and with their local governments.

Proponents of the shared economy can sometimes be guilty of an arrogant evangelism about the superiority of their peer-to-peer business models, which are for the most part taking advantage of a grey space that is lightly regulated or taxed.

But unlike Airbnb or Uber, which take explicit aim at breaking into specific industries, Djump and Peerby are non-monetised apps that simply make it easier for city people to do what small-town folk have always done: hitch a ride, borrow some sugar.

Weddepohl makes the point that sharing involves not just less waste but more social interaction. It’s a lesson he had to learn by fire.

“There’s a word for [the experience I went through] in Dutch that doesn’t really have an English equivalent: gunnen,” he says, as a stream of people stop by congratulate him, shake his hand and slip business cards into his pocket. “It means I wouldn’t force it on anyone, but I’d recommend it to them.”

This blog post was originally published in Guardian Cities.