EU cities try their own 'Ubers'
By Eszter Zalan
Frustrated that they no longer really knew what was happening in their own neighbourhood, Gaspar Horvath and a group of friends clubbed together to set up an online platform to share information - and anything else from ladders to a helping hand - with others in their area.
Two years later, more than 40,000 people in Hungary are using the platform, called OurStreet.
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“You don’t have to buy everything - you can share with others, sharing is the value in itself, ownership is unnecessary,” Horvath told EUobserver.
He sees the site as fulfilling a public function, to create a more liveable community, and thinks such platforms could be an ideal communication channel between the local government and citizens.
Horvath is among a new generation of entrepreneurs attempting to bridge the gap between the sharing economy, exemplified by firms like Airbnb and Uber, and the old world of government bureaucracies.
Cities have reacted to these changes in technology and economy in a variety of ways – some have banned or restricted both Uber and Airbnb. Others have welcomed them as a boost to the economy.
But some experts are looking closely, and hoping that cities learn deeper lessons from these so-called disruptors.
“It’s a wake-up call in areas where there has been no innovation, for example the taxi industry. They introduce whole new ways of collecting customers,” Dorthe Nielsen, policy director of Eurocities, a network of European cities, told EUobserver.
The “secret” to the success of these companies is that they don’t have assets themselves, and they provide the right platform for sharing. Smartphones make them easy and fast to use, while the market is global, so they can expand on a massive scale.
“For cities it is more interesting if a service pulls together resources from a neighbourhood that build communities,” she said, “these have real added value to the cities.”
She cites examples of smaller car-sharing services emerging in cities where Uber was banned.
Eurocities is overseeing research into the possibility of using digital platforms to improve public services and will hold its annual conference in Milan in November on the subject.
“Digital platforms are fundamentally changing public administrations, by incorporating ideas from citizens in places like Utrecht, Ghent, Bologna, Copenhagen or Amsterdam,” Nielsen said.
These platforms are used to test citizens’ wishes, or to assess what core issues are important for locals. Some local governments use it for example to decide on the use of public spaces.
“Local governments are usually not very innovative,” says Alanus von Radecki, at Fraunhofer IAO research institute in Germany, who studies urban engineering and development.
But he highlights some who are making headway. For example, Eindhoven and London are tailoring services based on data monitoring, and providing open data to their citizens.
And there is more to come.
Radecki thinks the next possible sector where online sharing services might come up is energy. A loosening of regulation on sharing renewable energy resources in Germany by 2018 means people will be able to rent out energy from one day to another.
Nielsen thinks the next sector where the sharing economy could thrive could be health, with care for elderly people for instance enhanced by a web-based community.
“These tools are likely to continue to develop to connect people. We can look forward to a more inclusive, more connected, more shared, more fun city in the next five to 10 years,” Nielsen said.
For that, she added, city leaders need the powers to support and regulate such initiatives so they benefit local communities.