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Academic Special Session: Sharing in the Context of Degrowth Transformations

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Inspired by the conference theme of social and ecological transformation, and critical engagement with theoretical and community-based conceptualisations of degrowth, this session articulates contested functions of ‘sharing’ as the basis of alternative development. We note that the advent of new technologies has reinvented the language and meaning of ‘sharing’ in dubious ways. Unrestricted and unfettered growth is at odds with social well-being: the same can also be said of many of the so-called ‘sharing economies’ that advocate peer-to-peer exchange of goods and services, cutting out the corporate ‘intermediaries’, with many also claiming to re-circulate and lend goods for multiple uses and users so that more can be enjoyed from less.
The papers in this session critically engage with a continuum of old, new and reinvented networks of sharing, including the capacity for human-computer interaction and P2P sharing platforms to address the key social constituents of degrowth; of intentionality, purpose, solidarity and trust. Each paper offers a discrete perspective around sharing which, when brought together in panel discussion, collectively pose important questions for the role of sharing to degrowth transformation: what are the sharing practices already embedded in society? What types of sharing are compatible with a degrowth vision and which are not, why? The issues raised in this session, drawing on observations from across the UK, Scandinavia, Spain and Bulgaria, resonate with, and represent, wider worldviews and critical, theoretical debates.

1. Filka Sekulova, Institute of Science and Environmental Technology Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain
2. Helen Jarvis, School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University, UK
3. Daniel Pargman & Karin Bradley, Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design & Department of Urban Planning and Environment, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden.
4. Panel discussion and Q&A

Filka Sekulova, “Drivers and impacts of non-market-based sharing: a comparative study of Bulgaria and Spain”

Sharing, understood as the collective use of physical resources and goods by actors outside the family circle, can have multiple environmental and social repercussions. The present article surveys its various formats ranging between the market and non-market domains. It proceeds by building a schematic representation of several key hypotheses and notions regarding the social and economic costs and benefits of sharing. When put together, these indicate that sharing is socially beneficial when monetary and time savings are positive, uncooperative behaviour is not too strong of an impediment, rebound effects are small and savings on natural resources and environmental degradations are generated. It is also argued that under certain conditions sharing can discourage rivalry and conspicuous consumption and have a positive effect on subjective well-being.
Next, several social and economic factors are explored with respect to their effect on the willingness to share, on the frequency of sharing a house, a car, electro-domestic appliances and tools using econometric analysis, drawing on two data sets, one from Barcelona (Spain) and another from Bulgaria. One stylized finding emerging from the results is that the sharing of cars, housing, tools and electro-domestic appliances is strongly influenced by time constraints and age, and less by the level of personal income. As predicted in the theoretical representation, sharing is more likely to take place in a context of trust, generosity and established social bonds. In the Bulgarian models, living in a town, as opposed to living in a village, and regularity of watching television bear a negative relation with sharing.

Helen Jarvis, “Sharing, togetherness and intentional degrowth in collaborative housing: past, present and future”
This paper elucidates key concepts of sharing and togetherness to highlight social phenomena of collective and purposeful sharing. It follows the quest for social and ecological transformations of domestic life beyond the dominant, unsustainable and unjust, growth paradigm of single family dwelling. The paper explores common elements of shared space, social interaction and the joint use of resources that characterise collaborative housing groups and projects. This emphasis on motivation and purpose is largely absent from mainstream work on individual economic transactions and efficiencies characterising the ‘sharing economy’. The paper draws on degrowth thinking to explore the transformative potential of joint action in groups and projects where there is evidence of rich but fragile social constructions of collectively negotiated ethical purpose. Intentional communities of community-led collaborative housing (such as cohousing) are this way identified as part of a solution to dismantle privatized, conspicuous consumption.
In practice it is observed that real places and co-present realities of living together (in private as well as communal spaces) continue to exert a powerful influence on multiple and contested meanings of sharing and togetherness, and thus potential to build a fair and sustainable world. For example, cohousing supports purposeful sharing in the social spaces, moral codes, and practical systems facilitated in these settings. Yet, although these infrastructures are necessary to support residents who seek to `live lightly', they are not sufficient as this small scale of dwelling to fulfil the social, ecological, and spiritual ambitions of degrowth.

Daniel Pargman & Karin Bradley, “Sharing, the commons and degrowth”
Sharing practices (e.g. the sharing economy, collaborative consumption, platform cooperatives) have been facilitated by the spread of easy-to-use digital platforms and tools for coordination. As was noticed already a decade ago, the price of coordination itself has been reduced by an order of magnitude or two (Shirky 2008); what was hard before is easy now and some things that were impossible before have been made possible now.
While “sharing” could encompass better utilization of cars, tools and specialized leisure equipment among neighbors, we are here primarily interested in the potential of sharing practices that expand offline and online “commons”. Commons here refers to “what we share”, e.g. a wealth of valuable assets that we work on establishing and maintaining together. While many specifically connect the commons to Elinor Ostrom’s (1990) natural resource commons (grazing lands, fisheries, forests, irrigation systems etc.), there has also been a recent surge of interest in urban, digital and knowledge commons (Hess and Ostrom 2005, Bollier and Selfrich 2012, Walljasper 2010).
We here use two examples to illustrate the establishment of what we have elsewhere called “21st century commons” (Bradley and Pargman 2017), e.g. urban not-for-profit sharing of spaces (and/or tools, skills) that are either enabled or at least coordinated with the help of digital platforms and technologies. The first example, the Bike Kitchen, is an open non-profit Do-It-Yourself (DIY) bike repair studio that exemplifies a locally anchored analogue form of commons, but with a set of general principles, developed through an international network, which has made the concept easy to copy and spread across the world. The Bike Kitchen can be seen as an example of a form of localised physical commons, often set in an urban context and similar to e.g. maker spaces or community gardens. The second case, Hoffice, is an open concept for arranging temporary “home offices”, i.e. a set of principles for how to offer and transform a private kitchen table into a one-day shared office space for community members. Hoffice is an example of temporary, pop-up commons, similar to the “home restaurants” or peer-to-peer ride sharing services that have gained ground with the spread of digital technologies
While the term “sharing”, despite its positive connotations, easily could be harnessed, co-opted and incorporated into the discourse of the current economic system (to increase consumption and generate larger profits), it is harder to see that happening to “the commons” and even harder to imagine that “degrowth” could be co-opted. We end the paper by discussing the nexus of sharing, the commons and degrowth thinking including relevant similarities, differences and tensions between these three concepts and the practices that support them.