I am about to launch a campaign! I’m going to become an activist for much greater sharing in our community. My last blog post talked about a certain kind of ‘sharing’ that we do here in Findhorn. In groups, typically sitting in a circle around a candle, we ‘share’ what’s going on for us i.e. we talk about our innermost thoughts and feelings and/or what’s going on in our lives. This kind of sharing is one of the essential practices we utilise to deepen connection and build relationships. In this piece, I want to discuss a different, more practical, form of sharing – the trading, lending, borrowing, or gifting of goods and services.

Sharing on the physical plane (i.e. owning or using material items jointly with others) involves explicit or implicit arrangements and agreements made by a group or a subgroup (e.g: an ecovillage or one of its neighbourhoods; a suburb or one of its streets) that enable efficiencies to be developed and/or mutual benefits to be derived. Our carpool, for example, comprises a subgroup of about 70 community members (and a few from out with the ecovillage) who share 10 or 11 late model vehicles. I believe that we’re the largest community carpool in Scotland and, as such, we’ve received significant financial support from the government. I’ve been a loyal member since it was founded eight years ago. The benefits I derive are too many to elaborate here. Suffice to say that the carpool makes car ownership a joy, rather than an expensive, conflict-ridden burden. And it’s a source of pride in what we can achieve collectively.

Sharing builds social relationships but is dependent upon them, in that the degree to which people are willing to share depends upon the trust and goodwill they have established. Willingness to share and cooperate is pervasive in a viable community. It represents the commitment of the group to the ideal of cooperation and is critical to their social development and group cohesion. At Findhorn we already do a lot of this kind of sharing. We collectively own land and numerous community buildings and facilities. Many community members, I for example, live in much smaller dwellings than otherwise we could as a direct consequence of being able to share communal facilities (laundry, guest rooms, office and workshop space etc.). For more on this see an earlier post titled, ‘My Home.’

The sharing of personal possessions is also already a feature of community life at Findhorn. The informal sharing of household goods reduces each member’s need to own and to purchase consumerist items. That I can borrow from a friend a juicer for a fast, or a tent to go camping, means I don’t need to buy these items and own them outright. However, in this regard I think we could do more, much more. And herein lays the impetus for my campaign. I feel passionately about instigating a formalised system that enables us to share personal possessions and household goods in a more comprehensive and committed manner. Inspired by the example of our carpool, I don’t see why we cannot develop a system which makes the sharing of private possessions extensive, efficient, effortless and joyful.

Ten years ago, I published a book on cohousing communities in the US, Japan and Australasia. At the time I was particularly inspired by one or two communities that had instigated such a system. At Commons on the Alameda in Santa Fe, for example, members had compiled and circulated a list of building, gardening, camping, cooking and other equipment that each household owns and was willing to share. Members would refer to the list should they want to borrow an item and approach one of the relevant households. Below is a excerpt from the list, probably about a third of its entirety. As far as I can tell, there’s absolutely no reason why we could not instigate such a system here at Findhorn. Indeed, I think it’s extremely remiss that we haven’t done so before now.

Capture

I have just listened to an excellent Bioneers pod cast delivered by a Dr Gabor Maté in which he said, ‘materialism is a system of belief and behaviour that considers material things, particularly the control and possession of material things, more important than human values such as connection and love, or spiritual values such as recognising the unity of everything.’ It rang a bell. If we turn the quote around, we get something like: In Findhorn we believe that human values such as connection and love, and spiritual values such as the unity of everything, are more important than material things, particularly the control and possession of material things.

Well my community, if this really is the case (and surely it is!) then how about it? Let’s demonstrate our professed values by implementing such a system. We already have our ‘Boutique,’ a place where community members and guests can leave clothing and other possessions for others to take, gratis. We also have a ‘library’ of privately donated DVDs and CDs from which anyone can borrow. The envisaged system would compliment these valuable, long-standing facilities. It would enable members to retain their possessions whilst also share them with others. Such a system would add significantly to our resilience. It would further the localisation of our economy and reduce our dependence on the global marketplace i.e. enable us to purchase fewer consumerist items produced in those horrendous factories in China and elsewhere.

But what might such a system look like? Might it be paper-based, like the one above, or Internet based? If it’s the latter, how do we design a system that doesn’t disadvantage or exclude the non-computer literate? If we did go with a digital management system, might we simply adopt an existing platform (see below), or find one that allows customisation (such as the one we use for the carpool) or have a system designed and built locally, tailored to our needs (such as our meals booking system). For me there is a danger in innovating for innovations sake. Technology can help, hinder or be irrelevant. I’m interested only in what technology, if any, can best facilitate the activity itself – the sharing?

I’ve done some research and found that numerous Internet start-up hopefuls have already been working on the idea. There are many digital solutions (Websites) out there that we could utilise. Streetbank, for example, a London-based site with global reach, enables neighbours to exchange all kinds of goods and services. It has only three members within a mile of The Park, but seems to be growing internationally. “We are starting a movement” the site claims, “one built on generosity, friendliness and holding what we own lightly.” Unfortunately, many of these kinds of Internet-based initiatives actually monetise the exchange process i.e. they emphasise renting, leasing or hiring rather than lending, borrowing, swapping or gifting. This is perhaps not surprising given that they are mostly developed by digital entrepreneurs looking to capitalise. My feeling is that we are better off with a local initiative designed by community members for our own purposes.

And there is another problem with these sites. For obvious reasons, they generally don’t hold or display an inventory of items that each member owns and is willing to share. If this were the case then a member seeking to borrow say, a tent, would go to the database and search on ‘tent’. The names of several tent owners and their addresses would pop up. S/he would then approach one of them and ask to borrow the item. The problem with this arrangement is the vulnerability members might feel in revealing the extent of their worldly possessions (to potential ne’re-do-wells). So, in fact, most sites of this type don’t work like that; instead they require those seeking an item to put out a request, to which other members who possess such an item are expected to respond. But this, it seems to me, is never going to work as well as a system which requires the seeker of the item to do the leg work. The person with the need is always going to be more motivated to ask to borrow an item than the owner of such an item will be to make an offer. The seeker is motivated by need. The owner’s motivation can only be altruism. However, a computer-based system with log-in and password available only to subscribers could work in the former manner. In principle, it would be a digital version of the above paper-based listing which, I believe, would intrinsically be more likely to succeed.

There are other design questions to be thought through. Do we want to focus on just the borrowing and lending of material goods (like the above system) or might we also include services such as massage, babysitting and computer support? And if we do, might that undermine some of our own community members who are trying to scratch a living with such skills? And what of the issue of relativity that has long beset time-bank arrangements. Is an hour of babysitting, for example, equivalent to an hour of legal or financial advice? There are other potential concerns. The relatively well-off are able to lend and borrow as a lifestyle choice whilst stigma might attach to those less well resourced with little to offer and greater material need. All of these considerations, and more, are important but they can, I believe, be resolved through thoughtful system design.

There is a burgeoning phenomenon out there called ‘collaborative consumption’ or the ‘sharing economy’ that began with the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) of 2008 and is now being fuelled by the ongoing global recession. Some of us might know it as the ‘gift economy.’ In neighbourhoods and regions all over the world, people (who start out as strangers) are coming together to share. Invariably, they soon realise that there is much more to be gained than just the economic savings; there are social and ecological advantages. To quote but a few: “The value of sharing is people connecting. It’s a social value.” “It brings people together. It makes people happier.” “A sustainable society is also one in which we choose positive behaviours that make us feel happier, more connected and more disposed to help others.” *

At Findhorn we are already connected; we have already built deep and pervasive trust. We have an awareness of all of the issues. It should be easy for us to instigate such a system. Come on Findhorn! Let’s do it!

* This post draws on an excellent report, Design for Sharing, by Ann Light and Clodagh Miskely, published November 2014. It’s available online here.

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