Tim Jenkin is a real-life superhero. A white South African, he took up campaigning for the African National Congress (ANC) and against Apartheid and was jailed for “terrorism.” After two years he ghosted his way out of jail using keys he forged himself. In the 1980s he built an encrypted communication network which helped the ANC become an effective political force. Then in the late 1990s he began writing software to help people swap goods and services without money. When I met him last year, I discovered how his approach could resuscitate a vision I thought was dying.
That vision was of a sharing economy to help humanity. In a 2013 report I helped to write for the World Economic Forum we were quite gung-ho about the economic and environmental potential of the sharing sector. Alongside the large corporate platforms like Uber and Airbnb, we also mentioned locally-owned and locally-focused systems, believing all these approaches would reduce the environmental resources required to deliver a better quality of life by unlocking underused assets like power tools and empty bedrooms.
But five years on, it turns out we were wrong. These corporate platforms have received a barrage of criticism. The most recent research indicates that the environmental impacts of Uber are not positive. One study estimates that Uber and its competitor Lyft could be increasing total vehicle travel miles per year in the US by as much as 5.5 billion. It turns out that ‘sharing’ isn’t quite the right word for connecting independent taxi drivers with their clients. The idea that Airbnb would reduce the environmental impact of where people stay is not backed up by research. The authors of a recent review of the sharing sector concluded that “the early claims of the inherent sustainability of the sharing economy are ill-founded.”
In fact, there were some earlier signs that the large corporate platforms were not as interested in the sustainability potential of sharing as we observers were. At the 2013 summer Davos summit in China the co-founder of Airbnb, Nate Blecharczyk, sought to moderate my enthusiasm by saying he thought that his company had little philosophical commitment to a sharing economy and was simply focused on growing the business. It was early days. The company was only worth $2.5 billion then, not the $31 billion it is today. In the intervening years, the problem of focusing on private profit instead of public purpose has become much more apparent as corporate platforms have experienced a backlash from regulators and stakeholders.
By talking to Tim, however, I realised that the social and environmental promise of the sharing economy has not disappeared. Away from the media attention given to the billion-dollar firms, Tim’s network and two others compatible with it have grown to embrace 20,000 people in 16 countries. Together these three networks have created the Credit Commons Collective to further coordinate their work. Last year their members exchanged almost a million hours-worth of value, and all for free. That's small in comparison to corporates like Airbnb, but the human and environmental upsides are real.
Take this story from Dawn Pilatowicz in Cape Town, for example: “I am physically challenged so everything I do from shopping, to going to the doctor, to an evening’s entertainment I need help with” she told me. “It got to the stage where I felt I had worn out my friends, constantly asking for help, but Tim's exchange system changed all that.” Dawn can buy food and get treatments from the network (called a community exchange), and pay someone in their local units of currency called “talents” to go do her shopping.
“Instead of my few loyal friends I have over 1,000 people out there I can call on to help me” she said beaming. “When my geyser burst, I completely redecorated the house. I had the walls painted, murals painted, curtains made, a patio made, tiling done—all on the exchange. In return, I’ve rented out accommodation, done BodyTalk treatments, taught Taijiquan, sold old clothes and furniture, and designed and printed business cards. My ability to participate actively in my community has been transformed.” The Collective lists more such case studies on their new fundraising website.
Annette Loudon is the representative of the Collective in Australia. When I spoke to her about these human and environmental upsides, she told me that: “We estimate over a third of all exchanges between our members have a direct pro-environmental impact.” In that category she includes the reuse and repair of household goods, tool exchanges and car sharing—the real kind where people share rides to work as opposed to Uber’s model.
In addition, Annette found that local food production comprised another third of transactions within the network in Australia. Although some lifecycle analyses question the environmental benefit of local food production, neighbourhood collaboration in this area is likely to strengthen community resilience to climate-disruption. Annette told me the participants in the network often do so as part of their environmental interests and so they share ideas on how to make their local food systems greener.
The third head of the Collective, Matthew Slater, is responsible for the software that supports the network across Europe. He has also been leading their research. He explained that they “would like more detailed analysis on the possible pro-environmental impacts both in Australia and across the other 15 countries where we support local groups, but we are all volunteers and maxed out on the day to day support.”
When I congratulated Tim on his environmental achievements he didn’t seem flattered. “The environmental benefits are just the side effects of people supporting each other and saving money,” he told me, “For me the sharing economy is a political project. Ordinary people need more control over their lives, whether it’s to respond to climate change or any other threat.”
Tim’s way of supporting local control like that starts with his software, which any community can use for free. It lets people list what they need and can offer each other. Each community group has its own unit of account for measuring how much members are sharing with others. The Collective doesn’t advertise or sell data to advertisers. All Tim asks for is a small promise of goods or services from each group as payment in kind. It could be candles, garden honey, an old washing machine or a lift in a neighbor’s car. The only money he has received for 15 years of building a free software platform was a three-year grant from the Ashoka Foundation.
Now a Hollywood film is being made about Tim's early life, but even superheroes retire, and now well into his 70s he’s increasingly kept from his computer by his failing eyesight. His software started as a hobby, but in 2018 it takes a skilled team to design, build and maintain it, and one person can’t keep up with the venture capital-funded projects that may entice his users away.
As private investments surge into social media technology, Tim worries that the doors of a much larger, fully automated ‘jail’ are closing behind him, just as they did to stop him protesting in South Africa all those years ago. This new jail is one in which the titans of Silicon Valley can see everything we do, filter everything we read, price everything we buy, and even make educated guesses about what we are thinking in order to direct our attention elsewhere.
The Collective has therefore teamed up with Friends of the Earth to attract the necessary funds to grow Tim’s sharing economy. "We escaped from prison as a team of three", he told me, "but we’ll need more than that to keep our digital freedoms."