Short-term rental trends and the global pandemic: “emancipatory catastrophism” in a metamorphosing world

Short-term rental trends and the global pandemic: “emancipatory catastrophism” in a metamorphosing world

As Ulrich Beck taught us, we live in a metamorphosing world. We are not simply experiencing changes; we are going through a metamorphosis. Even the current global pandemic is part of this metamorphosis, which eradicates all the certainties of modern society; what was inconceivable happens now, suddenly, as a global event.

This reflection fits well in the current context and offers a way to read what is happening and what will happen in many areas due to the virus shock. One of the hardest hit sectors is tourism, paralysed by the lockdown imposed by governments and by the prohibition to travel freely. The European parliament estimates a loss of one billion euros in revenue per month as a result in the European tourism market; the U.S. Travel Association projects a loss of 4.6 million jobs through May in the U.S travel market, a figure likely to increase. Roger Dow, president and CEO of the association said that “the impact on travel is six or seven times greater than the 9/11 attacks”.

According to many agencies, such as the Engel & Völkers, the sub-sector most negatively exposed is that of short-term rentals, while for others, such as AirDNA, an online rental analysis company, short-term rentals are more resistant to the impacts of the Coronavirus than hotels, cruises, and airlines. What is sure is that in the last years, Airbnb and its competitors have transformed the travel accommodation market, reshaped cities and neighbourhoods, sometimes strengthening the hyper-touristification process. Till yesterday we have been reflecting on the impacts  of short-term rental platforms on cities, warring about over-tourism, gentrification, exacerbation of the housing crisis… (find our reflections here) and struggling to join forces and find collective solutions also among cities (see the European Network for Short-Term Rentals or the opinion on “A European framework for regulatory responses to the collaborative economy” adopted by the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) in December 2019; or again the reflections made during the 2018 Sharing Cities Summit and the 2019 Sharing Cities Encounter). Today the global pandemic has completely changed the tourism scenario, by zeroing out tourism and emptying our cities.

Headlines report: “Airbnb’s Coronavirus Crisis: Burning Cash, Angry Hosts and an Uncertain Future” (Wall Street Journal); “How the Covid-19 crisis locked Airbnb out of its own homes” (The Guardian); “Can Airbnb Survive Coronavirus?” (CityLab); “Is this the end of Airbnb?” (Wired). According to AirDNA, bookings on Airbnb are down 85 percent, and cancellations close to 90 percent: so much so that revenue generated by the platform, in March alone, fell by 25 percent (on an annual basis). Trends that will not pick up soon, since much of the world is still on lockdown and that, in the year of the Airbnb’s debut on the stock exchange, are already impacting on the company’s evaluation (from 50-70 billion dollars, to 26 billion according to the Financial Times). Nevertheless, the company remains optimistic; as declared by the CEO and co-founder, Brian Chesky, Airbnb was born “during the great recession of 2008. The desire for connections and travel is a human prerogative, which will emerge strengthened from this period of separation […] we will see a new flexibility in the world where people work and move, including a greater interest in travel closer to home”. In addition, Airbnb just cashed a billion-dollar check from two new investors: private equity giant Silver Lake and investment firm Sixth Street Partners, demonstrating to still have trust from the market.

The first reactions of Airbnb relate to its community (in line with the company narrative about the central role of the community), with the twofold goal of on the one hand helping hosts and on the other hand creating the conditions to let its community support the emergency response on a solidarity base. In terms of internal help Airbnb has reserved a donation of $250 million to hosts, as a contribution to cover the cost of cancellations following the COVID-19 pandemic (responding to the protests of apartment owners who were called to the full refund of reservations between March 14 and May 31); in addition, a Super Host Relief Found has been launched to support Superhosts who live in the accommodation listed in the platform and who need help to pay their rent or mortgage, as well as for long-time experience hosts; the fund was collected thanks to Airbnb employees who donated $1 million, while the founders put in the remaining $9 million; another $7 million has been added by investors, for a total of $17 million. Starting in April, hosts will be able to apply for grants of up to $5,000, which will not have to be refunded.  

In terms of external help Airbnb has extended its already active program, Airbnb Open Homes, creating a program for healthcare workers, starting from Italy and France, with the goal to provide complete accommodation to 100,000 professionals worldwide, enabling them to maintain isolation. Airbnb therefore waived the costs of these accommodations, allowing operators to focus on assistance. In addition, the platform is providing guidelines for house cleaning.

In Italy other platforms have launched a similar support campaign: Altido, CleanBnB, Halldis, Italianway, Sweetguest and Wonderful Italy, six of the main Italian companies managing apartments for short-term rentals. They have signed an agreement to support the efforts of medical and nursing staff through the campaign #stateacasanostra [#stayinourhome]. The cost of renting the properties for those who participate in the campaign is totally absorbed by the promoting companies, which will only ask guests for a contribution for the final cleaning and sanitization.

Furthermore, several reactions from the market can be detected:

1- a rural revival. Beside the falling down of revenue from the listings in urban areas, we are observing a revenue increase for the listings located in suburban areas and in particular in rural areas, especially in the United States, where 73% of March Airbnb’s revenue was indeed made outside large urban centres. AirDNA reports the following data:

  • Airbnb revenues in rural areas: $1.32 billion in March 2020, up from $1.04 billion in March 2019.
  • Airbnb revenues in urban areas: $631 million in March 2020, down from $706 million in March 2019.

It should be underlined that this sudden burst of rural demand has not always been accepted by residents. In some jurisdictions short-term rentals have been temporarily banned or non-residents stays have been prohibited (as recently reported by BuzzFeed News).

The rural revival is not yet recorded in Italy for example, but it is conceivable that accommodations in less-travelled areas will be preferred in the near future if the short-term rental will survive.


2- a traditional hotels’ payback. As underlined by professor Michael O’Regan of the UK’s Bournemouth University, when the travel industry will start to revive, traditional hotels could benefit more, since people “might be less inclined to book Airbnb […] due to perceived cleanliness issues”; and there is who predicts a possible swing toward a previously niche sector: apartment buildings run by hotels.

3 – a flow reverse. A question comes up: as in the past house units have been moved from the traditional real state market to the short-term rental market, will we see the flow reverse? The theory is that as the short-term market drops off a cliff, the listings from platforms like Airbnb will be moved onto long-term platforms, or reintroduced in the traditional housing market. As a result, due to the surge in supply, the rates of monthly rentals will be cut. By date, even if some owners are moving their listings to the traditional real estate market – subtracting in this way accommodation units from the tourist sector and re-introducing them into the long-term rental market – real estate economists have confirmed that there is no surge of short-term rental listings  going into the long-term rental market.

Urban planning professor David Wachsmuth of the McGill University has been studying for years the urban impacts of short-term rental platforms and contributed to a 2019 Canadian study on Airbnb, finding that the company had pulled more than 31,000 units from the long-term rental market in Canada. Today, he expects that the health crisis will result in “a significant reduction in the number of units available in the short term”, but he invites to be prudent, since it is still too early to tell whether there is actually a reverse flow from short-term to long-term rentals. He talks of Airbnb as a “crater”: for people who rent spare bedrooms or use the platform to supplement their primary income, this is not the end of the world but simply the loss of a reliable secondary income; for the more aggressive speculators, who bought condos with the intention of renting them all year round, this can be a financial ruin.

As many researches have underlined, all over the world this last one is the biggest group; Airbnb listings are mainly owned by hosts with at least one other listing or by multiple owners, namely companies that manage rent-to-rent properties; i.e. in US, as reported by AirDNA, 600,000 listings out of 1.1 million are of multiple owners and are available for more than six months of the years, data that assimilates these properties more to hotel rooms and less to sharing economy holiday rentals. Greg Chauve, a Canadian property manager, is already perceiving the transformation of the business models for the category of multiple owners: those who used to have a tourism-oriented business are now looking for medium-long term tenants.

This perception is confirmed by the analytics firm GlobalData, according to which “Airbnb could lose significant portion of host community to long-term rental sites”; GlobalData affirms that a growing number of Airbnb hosts are deleting their listings and moving them on the less lucrative but more reliable monthly market. As reported in a recent Wired article, monthly rental listings startups such as Homads or Kopa, are recording a tenfold increase in hosts and listings in their platforms, letting the “Airbnb effect” become more visible than ever before. The same Airbnb is now offering long term rentals, at least one month. The famous housing activist Murray Cox, founder of InsideAirbnb, sees a very positive side in this temporarily reduced numbers of Airbnb’s listings: municipalities are having a clear picture of how pervasive are short-term rentals in their territory and might impose regulations to force extra short-term units off the market, as well as preventing new unit conversions.

Will these unexpected developments finally benefit local residents, people looking for a stable house in a constantly in crisis market? Will these changes open new hopes for the general housing market? Aligning with what Beck called “emancipatory catastrophism”, we can claim that a progressive and structural social change brought by a crisis, a metamorphosis coming out from a disruption, can become an opportunity – at least in this sector and with the previous premises.

Is this new scenario possible? Will we observe a shift oriented towards sustainable innovation rather than profit? As also Jeremy Rifkin stressed in his latest book, we need a pact for a socially responsible economy and for the planet. In his work Rifkin reflects mainly on climate change, but the connection between the current outbreak and the broader environmental dimension is evident; and it’s clear that short-term rental platforms are one of the sectors that need a change; or do we really want to come back to the existing wicked market? Can we aspire to a metamorphosis that, recalling Beck’s reflections, “goes beyond the theory of the world risk society” and “does not concern the negative side effects of goods, but the positive side effects of evils”? (p. 6).

The invitation is to reason in terms of “emancipatory catastrophism”, realizing that the threat that oppresses us could lead to a turning point in a cosmopolitan sense[1], making us look to sustainable innovation, to a better environment for local resident and to a more sustainable form of tourism, probably an “undertourism” (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2020). Beck is not alone in his optimistic approach to the crisis: among many others Jim Bendell talks of “deep adaptation pandemic of love” and Sandrine Dixson-Declève and colleagues of “crisis-as-progressive-opportunity”. We need to think beyond the apocalypse and to guide the metamorphosis, starting from what the pandemic has revealed regarding our broken and decayed political and social system.

[1] Beck uses the term cosmopolitan revising it: for him the ‘cosmopolitan gaze’ means that in a world of global crises and dangers generated by progress the old distinctions – between inside and outside, national and international, us and others – lose their binding character and that we need a new realism, a cosmopolitan realism. Read more here.

Sharing Cities Action Encounter 2019

Sharing Cities Action Encounter 2019

Collaboration among cities as an efficient strategy to face the platform economy. 

The 2019 edition of the Smart City Expo World Congress (SCEWC) in Barcelona has just ended (November 19-21); like last year, the exposition hosted a dedicated track about inclusive and sharing cities, exploring five specific themes: future of work and education; bridging the gap, ensuring digital, social and gender inclusion; circular economy; sharing cities with a focus on platform labor in urban spaces; and right to cities in terms of housing, gentrification and urban justice.

In addition, in the Exhibition Area (as happened in the 2018 edition), the topic of sharing cities had a dedicated stand, the Sharing Cities Stand Lab. The stand was organized by the Barcelona City Council and the Dimmons Research Group of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC-IN3). It proposed a special program and an innovative laboratory of three days for policy co-creation, with presentations, debates, hackathons and work session, focusing on key topics such as future of work, inclusion, gender equality, data policies and commons, and sustainability goals.

  • About future of work: Several sessions took place departing from the Platform Labor in Urban Spaces (PLUS) H2020 project framework, both at the Sharing Cities Stand Lab and in the Congress Area of the SCEWC: the debate was on platform economy’s impact on work, welfare, social protection and the right to the city through a ground-breaking trans-urban approach to promote collaboration among cities.
  • Inclusive platform and feminist economy: During the Sharing Cities Encounter 2019 several sections reflected on the impact of digital transformation on achieving an egalitarian society; on the feminist digital economics; on the relevance of doing gender impact evaluations and gender-sensitive budgeting to urban sharing practices/initiatives, ecc.. The commitment to equality of this edition has been materialized through the creation of a Code of Conduct and Good practices with gender perspective.
  • Data commons: Worried by corporate data extractivism, several initiatives against technological determinism are appearing in the public sphere with the aim to foster individual and collective rights towards data uses; i.e. last April, more than 50 experts signed a Manifesto for data sovereignty and commons; during the Encounter several sessions took place surrounding data issues, including a debate on the principles agreed in this Manifesto and a Data Commons Workshop, as well as debates about gender gap in this field.
  • Climate change and sustainability: The Encounter hosted a panel and a collaboration with Viable Cities, the largest research and innovation initiative taken in Sweden so far in the field of smart and sustainable cities, which aims to help cities in transiting into Climate Neutral Cities through digital innovation and civic engagement.

The stand and the 3 days-event was also the occasion for the sharing cities to meet and reflect together, one year after the launch of the Declaration of Common Principles and Commitments for Sharing Cities during the Sharing City Summit 2018 and the creation of the Sharing Cities Action Task Force, which born as joint action of the Barcelona City Council and the UOC. The aim of the Sharing Cities Action was, and still is, to support cities in the implementation of the principles and in moving forward with concrete actions [such as: supporting city sovereignty and data commons; sharing regulatory efforts and empowering cities in front of disruptive platforms; promoting sustainable and inclusive platforms to achieve cities’ and global goals, while preserving rights; incorporating sharing dynamics in urban planning and fostering citizen engagement]. LabGov reported about the Declaration and the Sharing Cities Action in an article that can be found here.

With the Sharing Cities Action Encounter 2019 cities renovated their willingness to collaborate and define together an Action Plan for 2020 to make a step forward regarding the challenges and opportunities of digital platforms and sharing potential. The Encounter congregates 30 cities representatives around the world (that met and work also in closed operative meetings) and 150 actors from the international sharing ecosystem of business platforms, civic society, networks, experts, activists and research centers. Representatives from the European Parliament, European Commission and the Committee of Regions and Cities also joined the Encounter. The Sharing Cities Stand Lab, indeed, has been awarded to be part of the European Social Economy Regions Plan 2019 (ESER 2019) by the European Commission General Directive of Grow. The award implied an active involvement of the European Commission in the promotion of the Sharing Cities Encounter itself. Also present was, with a specific panel, the Sharing Cities Sweden project with its representatives from Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö and Umeå.

In the 2018-2019 period the Sharing Cities Action kept alive the communication between cities and the network expanded from 50 to 77 cities, from 36 different countries. It contributed, collecting opinions from the cities, to the Opinion for the European Committee of the Regions and Cities (CoR) on platform economy. The document (launched by a own initiative of the city of Vienna) has been discussed October 22th at the 25th ECON Commission Meeting and the Opinion will be presented for adoption at the Plenary Session of 4-5 December 2019. Key insights of this initiative and the CoR positioning have been presented in the Sharing Cities Encounter 2019 by Klemens Himpele, Head of Department for Economic Affairs, Labour and Statistics, of Vienna City Administration.

The year saw also action researches to empower cities: departing from the Summit 2018, Sharing Cities Action developed the report: An Overview of Public Policies of the Sharing Economy by Cities. The report presents an analysis of cities conceptions and approaches regarding sharing economy definition, its challenges and opportunities, criteria used to differentiate platforms and cities’ main goals and policy interventions. It also focuses on governance structure, participatory methodologies, collaborations among cities, connections between different stakeholders and cities administrations, and pays special attention to gender and inclusive policy interventions. Lastly, it develops an analysis on cities’ typology regarding their reactions towards Sharing Economy.

Sharing Cities Action has also established a collaboration with the Corporate European Observatory (CEO), supporting it in the launch of the report about platforms lobbying in Europe: Über-influential? How the Gig Economy’s Lobbyists undermine Social and Workers Rights. Kenneth Haar, the CEO, presented key insights during the Sharing Cities Encounter 2019. 

Another research implemented and presented during the Encounter has been the study on Data Strategies for Cities to facilitate Negotiation with Platforms. The study results from the collaboration with Murray Cox from Inside Airbnb (Open Data Platform with data scraped from Airbnb). This collaboration is framed within the goal of promoting common actions between cities to defend the sovereignty of cities in front of large platforms. The goal of the study is the systematization of knowledge about negotiation with platforms to inform possible actions and strategies that cities may develop in each responsible department. Murray Cox presented key insights of this study during the Encounter.

Lastly, Sharing Cities Action has been cooperating and supporting with the European Cities Network on Short Term Holiday Rental, a network of 19 European cities and regions working together on the challenges of the short-term rental platforms. It aims at reorienting the growth on touristic activities mediated by platforms towards sustainable growth. In other words, it pursues to foster the social and economic sustainability of the housing market, as well as, to ensure and improve the quality of life in both cities and regions. Key insights of the European cities network on short term holiday rental have been presented in the Smart City Expo World Congress and in the Sharing Cities Encounter 2019 by Albert Eefting, Senior Policy Advisor on housing affairs City of Amsterdam and coordinator of the European cities network on short term holiday rental.

In addition, during the Encounter has been announced that Seoul will take the testimony of Barcelona (Summit 2018), New York (Summit 2017) and Amsterdam (Summit 2016) to support the program of collaboration between cities and organize the Sharing Cities Summit 2020.

While waiting for the next year’s summit, we wish to the sharing cities involved and, to those new cities that are willing to come on board, a year of researches, strict and productive collaborations, and collective actions!

The 2019 Future Innovation Forum:  Towards the Urban Commons of Conviviality

The 2019 Future Innovation Forum: Towards the Urban Commons of Conviviality

There are no alternatives to neoliberalism and capital?

With this question Mayor Park Won Soon opened the 2019 Future Innovation Forum in Seoul on Tuesday October 1st, underlying that we actually have thousands of alternatives which, of course, require courage.

Mayor Park’s Opening Speech

The Forum was organized by the The Center for Asian Urban Societies (CAUS) together with FOREXCOM Inc. and hosted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government at the Social Innovation Park, an emblematic space of the city.

Seoul, indeed, under the Park’s mandate, focused on social innovation and sharing economy with the goal to favour a paradigm shift, a transition towards an innovation-led Sharing City. A city that can really be a place of freedom and conviviality of diverse and different individuals. Social innovation is considered a tool to realize this transition and transform urban space in an a more equal, free and fair space that allow citizens to own the city together and become the subject of conviviality. “It transforms the life of self-development for competition and consumption into a life of friendship and hospitality for freedom, dignity, and symbiosis, and enables us to imagine and create a more free and dignified life-cycle”.

Today the Seoul Metropolitan Government in its goal to build “the City for All” proposes to take the results of the Sharing City Seoul project, launched in 2012, and go further, transforming the city in “a distributed and resilient” urban system in which expand democracy in its participative version. That means develop Seoul into a “City as a Commons”. This crucial transition will proceed on three trajectories that will allow to create and enjoy the commonwealth and the common rule that is “urban commons”:

  1. The Economic transition for sustainable circulation of resources for production and consumption
  2. The Ecological transition that pursues inclusive growth with the recovery of the social-disadvantaged
  3. The Social transition that makes social value accepted as core principles of social operation.

To deepen the reflection about this transition, the Forum gathered many experts that framed the Commons universe. The plenary morning session, saw the involvement of LabGov, that intervened with a presentation of professor Christian Iaione. He talked of the meaning of making a civil regulation on commons for the future of the “Sharing Seoul” and for the city’s new task, presenting the Co-city methodological approach and the co-governance project run by LabGov, bringing insights also from the Bologna Regulation on collaboration between citizens and the city for the care and regeneration of urban commons“ (here to explore the Co-City protocol and here to download the Co-Cities full open book).

Christian Iaione, LabGov co-founder, presenting at the Future Innovation Forum

On the main stage also Michel Bauwens that introduce a model of poly-governance for the creation of a partner city based on meta-regulation. “The poly-governance mechanisms and institutions discovered by Elinor Ostrom (1990) as the hallmark of the management of commons resources becomes the new normal in institutional design. Poly-governance structures, possibly matched by appropriate property mechanisms, consists at least of the three levels (commons, state and market) but can be even more fine-grained, as the work of Foster & Iaione (2016) has suggested” ( see here for more information).

The following open discussion with Iaione and Bauwens involved Mayor’s Park, professor Ezio Manzini (Politecnico) and professor Lee Kwang-Suk (Seoul National Universty of Science and Technology) focusing on the meaning of transitioning from a sharing city to a commoning city and the importance to prevent neoliberal capitalism from coopting commons.

The Forum was also the occasion for the Mayor to meet the INTERNATIONAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE.

The inspiring morning was followed by four sessions in the afternoon:

  • Urban commons and co-creation: how to build the commoning platforms in Cities?
  • Urban commons and democracy: who owns the urban nature? Urban commons against inequality
  • Tech-Knowledge as Urban Commons for resilient community and
  • Commoning Public Land 

Every session saw the participation of many experts, practitioners, scholars, from USA as Neal Gorenflo – executive director and co-founder of Shareable, from Europe as Mayo Fuster – director of Dimmons Research Group at Open University of Catalunia, and several presenters from South Korea, coming from various sectors, in order to deepen both economical, ecological and social aspects around the topic of the commons.

The Forum gathered also a C.I.T.I.E.S delegation with representatives from Montreal and Barcelona. The Case of Barcelona with its sharing ecosystem, the experience around the topic of commons,  and the birth of the Sharing Cities Action, was also presented on the stage by Mayo Fuster during the first afternoon session as best practice in the field.

The day closed with the message from the Forum Director, professor Seoung-won Lee (Seoul National University) and from the Head of the Social Innovation Division inside the Seoul Metropolitan Government. They both stressed the relevance of this crucial paradigm shift, the importance to incorporate and let thrive the commons to really build a city for all and the relevance of connecting experiences among cities.

6th International Workshop on the Sharing Economy – 2019’s edition comes back to Utrecht.

6th International Workshop on the Sharing Economy – 2019’s edition comes back to Utrecht.

After successful editions in Utrecht (2015), Paris (2016), Southampton (2016), Lund (2017) and Mannheim (2018), the International Workshop on the Sharing Economy comes back to Utrecht for its sixth edition.

The University of Utrecht has indeed held the meeting in June 28 and 29, thanks to the organization of Martijn Arets (Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development), Rense Corten (Dept. of Sociology), Joyce Delnoij (Dept. of Sociology) and Koen Frenken (Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development).

As every year, the International Workshop represents an important venue to bring together academics and other stakeholders to discuss the latest insights on the sharing economy and to see the advancement on researches of many colleagues.

This edition started with an opening public event at the TivoliVredenburg on June 27. The public event “Towards an Inclusive Platform Economy: the Future of Work” moderated by Martijn Arets, hosted a speech of Peter Baek, head of the British innovation think tank NESTA. He challenges researchers to spend less time analysing downsides of platforms, especially Uber and Airbnb, in order to focus instead on the opportunities to solve global challenges coming from the platforms and alternative financing models. He presented some Nesta UK’s activities, such as the ShareLab project that aims to grow evidence and understanding of how collaborative digital platforms can deliver social impact. He also talked of crowdfunding community investment and of matched crowdfunding as a way of getting ideas and projects off the ground, combining crowdfunding and institutional funding.

The second speaker of the public event was José van Dijck, professor in media and digital society at Utrecht University and co-author of the book ‘The Platform Society’. She prefers to talk of platform societies instead of sharing economy, arguing that we need to move away from market and consider more societies’ needs. In her speech she explained how platforms have entered the space of U.S. primary schools “disrupting” the public education system. Stressing the  importance of putting “public values first” she underlined that new technologies are reducing the privacy of children (that cannot speak for themselves and are not protected enough by the GDPR) as well as the autonomy of pupils and teachers. Platforms indeed promise personalized learning and more efficiency in schools, but there is no evidence on this, and investment in technology means less money to hire teachers.

The second part of the public event hosted practitioners and stakeholders presenting stories from practice. Sara Green Broderson introduced the Danish reputation platform Deemly which helps platform workers to transfer their reputation from one platform to another, preventing dependence on a single platform; she defined Deemly as “a platform of platforms” since it puts individual users back in control of ratings and reviews.

Nils Ahlsten from the Swedish Public Employment Service, presented the ongoing experimentation of JobTech, that through an open source infrastructure, API’s and open data for the creations of different job market applications, helps matching employers and job seekers, transforming online reputation into offline resume.

Last but not least, Ronald van den Hoff introduced his company,, that with over 150 locations worldwide has become an interactive breeding ground for entrepreneurship, inspiration, innovation, cross-linking and cross-pollination. Ronald is also author of the book Society 3.0 and founder of the Society 3.0 Foundation.

The public open event laid the foundations to start a rich and intense 2-days International workshop. June 28 at the University Hall, professor of Strategic Management at the Warwick Business School, Pinar Ozcan, kicked off officially the 2019 edition. With her speech “Intricacies of doing research on sharing platforms: Theory, methodology, and pitfalls”, she highlighted some of her findings on market entry strategies, growth challenges, and the role of local institutions and trade associations in the process. In particular she compared the entry strategies of Uber and Airbnb in UK, Netherland and Egypt, since by now we know how platforms enter the market and grow but less is known about how they move across institutional environments. In her findings she drew special attention to the transformative approach adopted by Uber (rushing to gain scale) versus the additive approach adopted by Airbnb (more cooperative with institutions). In her opinion, over time additive strategies may not be enough, but they get “a foot in the door”: once they are in, they work with regulators to address societal challenges.

The keynote speaker of the second day, June 29, was instead Timm Teubner,  professor of Trust in Digital Services in the Faculty of Economics and Management at TU Berlin. In his speech “Platforms, trust, and what may come” he discussed “platformization” that is impacting our individual behaviour and our understanding of public and private sphere as well of the electronic landscape in general. He also showed the economics of peer-to-peer markets and the influence of pricing.

The two inspiring morning lectures started two intense days of presentations divided in five parallel sessions that covered different topics: reputation, urban sharing, business model, legal issues, cooperation, mobility, institutions, trust, environmental impact, human resource management, coops, participation, individual behaviour, social impact and policy. The variety, as usual, was high and the level of researches as well. The presentations covered indeed a lot of research fields and specific topic, analysing and deepening the worker issues, the evolution of carsharing, the legal aspects of the sharing economy, the effect of seller reputation on a peer-to-peer marketplace, the evolution of the food delivery platforms, cities case studies, and so on. A complete list of presentation can be found here, while the abstracts here.  The edition has seen the participation of people from 23 countries, for a total of 75 presentations. It should be signaled that a #crowdfunding campaign was also used by a participant from #Brazil in order to afford her participation at the workshop and present her research on governance in sharing platforms.

The adding value of this international workshop is the multidisciplinary that it offers. Indeed it brings together scholars with a common interest on sharing economy/platform economy but with different backgrounds and approaches, making the venue rich in inputs and insights, and valuable for everyone in terms of exchanging ideas and views, discussing hypothesis and research questions, brainstorming with colleagues, networking for future partnerships

After two days of great, intensive and fruitful discussions about the sharing economy, the closing session, in the general excitement, revealed the next year location that will be Barcelona, hosted by the Open University of Catalunya. So, see you all there for updating about our researches. And stay tuned.

Public Money, Public Code. Digitally empowering citizens and administrations

Public Money, Public Code. Digitally empowering citizens and administrations

How to use free software to push organizations into the next level? How to digitally empower citizens and administrations?

This was the topic discussed last April 8th in Barcelona together with two experts, two representatives of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE): Erik Albers and Alexander Sander. The eventPublic Money, Public Code. Digitally empowering citizens and administrations” [1]  was organized by the Asociación KDE España and moderated by Dimmons (UOCIN3) and took place at the Escola de Trabaill of Barcelona in order to give an overview on the Free Software world and discuss public policies around it.

Event “Public Money, Public Code. Digitally empowering citizens and administrations”

The FSFE is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that works to create general understanding of and support for Free Software (FS) and opens standards in politics, business, law and society. It supports individuals and organizations in understanding how FS contributes to freedom, transparency and self-determination and, from a legal point of view, it collects and shares knowledge about legal and licensing aspects.

Software is deeply involved in all aspects of our lives and the Foundation stresses the importance to make sure that this technology empowers rather than restricts us. Free Software is a matter of liberty (not price); it gives everybody four rights :

1. use, since the FS can be used for any purpose and is free of restrictions such as licence expiry or geographic limitations;

2. study, since its code can be studied by anyone, without non-disclosure agreements or similar restrictions;

3. share, since it can be shared, redistributed and copied at no virtual cost;

4. improve, since it can be modified by anyone, and these improvements can be shared publicly.  

So, these rights help support other fundamental freedoms like freedom of speech, press and privacy.

“Public Money, Public Code” campaign poster

Looking to public administrations, it should be stressed that they are important users and providers of software. They procure, fund and support the development of products and services that can affect large groups of people. However, when these endeavours do not involve Free Software, critical questions concerning security, efficiency, distribution of power, and transparency arise. Indeed, in order to establish trustworthy systems, public bodies must ensure they have full control over the software and computer systems at the core of their state digital infrastructure. But right now, this is rarely the case due to restrictive software licenses that:

  • Forbid sharing and exchanging publicly funded codes, preventing cooperation between public administrations and hindering further development.
  • Support monopolies by hindering competition, with the result that many administrations become dependent on a handful of companies.
  • Pose a threat to the security of our digital infrastructure by forbidding access to the source code and creating fixing backdoors and security holes.

On the contrary the kind of software that fosters the sharing of good ideas and solutions, that guarantees freedom of choice, access, and competition, that allows IT services improvement, that helps public administrations regain full control of their critical digital infrastructure, and thus supporting them in becoming independent, is more and more necessary. The two experts of the FSFE stressed therefore the importance to rely on Free and Open Source Software in public administrations instead of proprietary software.

  • In this way, it is possible to see and inspect the code, learn from it and reuse. Thus, costs are minimized, since investment can be concentrated on human resources instead of capabilities; in addition, processes become transparent and shareable (still reducing costs).
  • The FS also guarantees technological sovereignty: it is possible to choose local entrepreneurs who respect users’ rights and freedoms, change providers if necessary and retain control of data; this means that it is possible to have tailored software that suits people’s needs and not just the vendor’s business model; at the same time the monopoly and the oligarchic dependence to big technological vendors is broken.
  • In addition, FS allows to work with communities. Indeed, it uses the talent of FS developers, represents and gives voice to users and developers, and, in that respect, local SMEs can become strong partners.
  • From a legal point of view, it allows to connect legal experts and companies, it represents a safe place to discuss issues and to find solutions to overcome problems.
  • From a political point of view, it favors the collaboration among cities working on joint projects, building networks.

Regionality, autonomy and efficiency are therefore three crucial key words.

But above all, publishing source code is a way to give taxpayers’ money back to society. For this reason, the FSFE has launched the campaign: Public Money, Public Code. Public bodies are financed through taxes and they must make sure they spend funds in the most efficient way possible.  Under the claim “if it is public money, it should be public code as well”, the Foundation pushes for legislation requiring that publicly financed software developed for the public sector be made publicly available, under a Free and Open Source Software license. The campaign revolves around an open letter advocating that publicly funded software should be free. Currently, this call to public agencies is supported by more than 21499 people and 161 organizations that have already signed the letter.

The venue of the event is not by chance: FS has become a core element of the Barcelona’s smart city and digitalization agenda, under the nudging action of Francesca Bria, the Commissioner of Technology and Digital Innovation at the City Council. Barcelona has a bigger City plan that aims to use technology and data to provide better, more affordable services to citizens, making government more transparent, participative and effective. As one can read on the City Council website “Strike a New Deal on Data to expand socially beneficial uses of data, while guaranteeing data sovereignty, ethics & privacy. Provide access to Internet for all. High-speed internet connectivity is not a luxury but a right for all citizens; it’s an absolute necessity for economic development and social mobility in the 21st century economy”. The city is working on several fronts:

  • Technology for a better government through an ambitious plan for digital transformation that includes strategic projects to counter social problems, detected as government priorities.
  • Urban technology to guarantee that the city has digital infrastructures it requires for its overall management and to ensure the provision of uniformed public cover for all city residents’ needs in terms of housing, unemployment, social exclusion, health, energy and mobility.
  • City data commons: data are a prime asset in the knowledge society and should be perceived as a common asset; the city promotes this view in order to achieve the democratic, open, transparent and regulated management of this resource.

Among all the different projects the city is running, DECIDIM has to be mentioned, since it is the biggest FS program of the city. It is a digital platform for the democratic participation that allows citizens to debate, attend meetings and create proposals. The platform’s source code is publicly available, enabling other cities to use it and adapt it (similar to the CONSUL of Madrid). This is not the place to detail the project, but it should be said that government is investing public money in FS so citizens can control the software, and platforms can remain in the public domain, managed and governed by the community. Barcelona has also been the first city to sign the campaign launched by the FSFE Public Money, Public Code. By date, it is running a migration plan with a pilot project on processing workstations into a completely free operating system. But the whole information infrastructure is moving towards open standards, open stocks and interoperability. Basically, Barcelona is migrating its computer system away from the windows platform; the strategy is first to replace all user’s applications with open-source alternatives, until the underlying Windows operating system is the only proprietary software remaining; in a final step, the operating system will be replaced with Linux.

We are moving in the frame of the “digital democracy” and “digital sovereignty”. That means taking back control of data and information generated by digital technologies, and promoting public digital infrastructures based on free and open source software, open standards and open formats. So, in order to regain sovereignty and guarantee citizen digital rights, public-common democratic infrastructures are required.

Today a growing number of public institutions started a transition to free-software solutions. This does not only grant independence but can address the often argued need for public access to publicly-funded developments. In addition, the experts highlighted that this is the only way that public services can ensure that citizen data is handled in a trustworthy manner since non-free software wouldn’t allow total control (or even knowledge) over the employed functions of the needed programs.

The migration process nevertheless is very complex and can also fail.  See what happen in Munich for example: the German city indeed was famous for rejecting Microsoft in favor of using Linux on its PCs, but in 2017, after more than a decade of running Linux-based PCs, it has decided to switch about 29,000 PCs to Windows 10.  A study of IT at the council by consultants Accenture and ARF said that it took the council too long to update software and fix bugs, resulting in “obsolete, partially unsafe, usually extremely cumbersome IT, leading to lots of wasted time and productivity”, but blamed a lack of coordination between the more than 20 IT departments serving the city, rather than the use of open-source software. The two experts of FSFE suggest to do the migration step by step. What is really important is not the duration of the process but the commitment of the administration.

What is important to highlight is that we are facing not only great technological change, but overall a cultural and a structural organizational change, and a change in the way public services are designed and delivered. For this reason, the digital revolution should be connected to a democratic revolution.

That means rethinking the relation between government and citizens to ensure that citizens take back democratic control and take an active part in the city life. Technology should be rethought and used from the angle of the Commons.

The point is that, in a democratic city, technology should serve to: digitally empower citizens, protect their privacy from abuses by public and private powers, fight against corruption and to advance towards a more equitable and sustainable economy. That means favoring the creation of technological models that are ethical, responsible and civil, and conquering technological digital sovereignty for common goods.

[1] Official teaser for the “Public Money, Public Code” campaign