The 20th century was the unfortunate era of hyper- consumerism. You know the stats: basically, the world is ending, and we, the insatiable consumers of the world, are at fault. Traditionally, there are two solutions for what to do with all the junk we buy and collect. You can dispose of it, or you can store it. Yet both options bring their own set of troubles, be it overflowing landfills or premium rent on storage.

Michelle Thorne

As Bruce Sterling says, every moment devoted to stumbling over and tending to your piled debris are precious hours in our mortal lives, and time not spent with family, friends, your community, yourself. The things you own end up owning you.1 So, with all this doom and gloom, is there any reasonable way to take action?Can we even make ACTIVISM a difference? There is one clear advantage we have in our generation: the power of the network.

We can leverage our networks. Unlike any generation that came before, we can provide and share infrastructure better thanks to network technology. We can buy, build, and collaborate locally and efficiently. We can shop smarter, share better, and use our networks, both online and off, to reduce waste, improve the economy and environment, and spare our bank accounts, and even have a good time and make new friends doing it. COMMUNITY

That’s Collaborative Consumption

Think about co-working spaces, for example. You can rent a desk and share office infrastructure together with fellow digital nomads. No one, besides the people who actually run the space, have to own any of the equipment, and even they can lease or rent it from other companies. A huge advantage of a co-working space is that it makes it easy and attractive to share these resources, and by doing so, they make it more efficient (and let’s be honest, more fun and social) for all of the people working here.

Let’s think about other types of resources. Who needs to actually own a moving van? Not many folks. That’s why services like Robben & Wientjes, a moving truck rental company in Berlin, are successful. The same holds true for platforms like the US-based car sharing service Zipcar, or airbnb and Couchsurfing – or even the Bahn bikes, Mitfahrgelegenheit, and stuff-sharing sites like NeighborGoods.2 All of the many, many sites out there now make it easy to offer, find, and share goods and services: flexibly, agilely, and socially. SHARE

Here’s another example: the common household drill. Do you own a drill? If so, can you even remember the last time you used it? Did you know that on average, a household drill is used a total of just 5-10 min its entire lifetime? That gives you what, like 20 holes max? Is that really an efficient object to purchase, maintain, and care for? What if instead of all that time it spent idling on the shelf, it could be generating value, either by renting it out for cash or just helping out a neighbour?

Products like household drills, or moving vans, or a bike in a city you’re visiting aren’t necessarily desirable to own. Instead, isn’t it just better to access them? Aren’t the rights to use and access more important than owning it? This is a mantra for our times, for the century of collaborative consumption: Wealth as a whole consists in using things rather than in owning them. 3

Design Challenges

Here are a few design challenges for collaborative consumption:

Create open layers. Think about interoperability across key components. How can you use open standards to enable remixing, modification, and improvements across products? REMIX How can open layers be applied to motors, power cords, outlets, connectors, joints, nibs for maximal customization and range of use?

Build modularity. Similarly, shared objects should be easytorepair REPAIR andmodify.Youshouldn’thaveto throw away your entire phone because it’s scratched. Building modularity means fostering generativity.

Value added through usage. I think this is one of the most powerful design challenges. Think about an object that doesn’t depreciate with use, but is instead improved by it. One example is a baseball mitt. When you first buy it, it’s very stiff and hard to catch a ball with. Over time, with use, it becomes more flexible and a better product. That’s just on the physical layer. What about value added on a data layer? Think about how objects can learn from behaviours the more they’re used. Like by collecting more data points. Or where the user contributes metadata, like marginalia, reviews, and fact-checking for books.

Personalize shared objects. Are you familiar with these phones that hold multiple SIM cards? Those are really common in places like Africa where one device is used by multiple people. Each person inserts their own SIM card and all their address books and personal settings are ready for them. The personalization follows the user, not the device. Can we apply this to other devices and services? Cars, printers, refrigerator, coffee machines, or even drills?

Diversify libraries. Libraries are not just for books. Think about other ways to pool resources, be it for commercial or community aims. You could have libraries of tools, or libraries of electronics, cooking appliances, moving boxes, jewellery and accessories, holiday decorations, toys, you name it. BLUEPRINTS It has huge potential. There are many business opportunities here, as well as many challenges to be solved by creative and adventurous people.

Let’s break the mould. Don’t design for the dump. RECYCLING Don’t design for 20th-century hyperconsumption. Design for things to last, to be shared, and to be part of the future: a future of collaborative consumption.


  1. Fight Club, Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Brad Pitt. Fox 2000 Pictures, 1999.
  2. Botsman, R and Rogers, R, What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption. Harper Business: New York, 2010.
  3. Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book I, Chapter 5, 1361a, trans. W. Rhys Roberts. Princeton University Press: Princeton 1984, available online , accessed 14 january 2010.
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