Letty is a freelance journalist who writes stories about cities and the people inhabiting them. She also works as a communications consultant, mostly in the area of housing and urban development.
Technology gets to the heart of a Dutch neighborhood's trust issues.
AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands — This city might not have become a global hub of the “sharing economy” today if 2009 hadn't been such a lousy year for Daan Weddepohl.
In short time, Weddepohl lost his job, his girlfriend walked out on him, and his apartment went up in flames. He was left without any possessions and had to ask people for help. To Weddepohl, now 33, showing vulnerability wasn't easy in the era of Facebook, where everybody seems to lead cheerful and happy lives. But it led him to an interesting discovery.
“Neighbors I didn't really know up until then came by to bring all kinds of essential things, like food, blankets or cooking utensils,” Weddepohl recalls. “It turned out that people really like helping others. I also found out that asking for help creates real human contact. I realized that this is what really matters in life and not the designer clothes or the flashy car. It’s people that make you happy.”
The experience led Weddepohl to develop a website and mobile app called Peerby. The idea is to make it as easy as possible for people to borrow stuff they need from their neighbors. Users type into the app what they need—power drills, ladders, and other tools for household projects are common requests. Peerby then queries nearby members. If someone has an item they’re willing to lend, they respond and use the app’s messaging tool to sort out the logistics. All this typically happens in less than 30 minutes.
Weddepohl sees these transactions as more than just a temporary exchange of goods. He sees them as a form of community building, in which each borrower and lender can experience a bit of the neighborly good will that he discovered back in 2009. He figures sharing more and buying less will also save people money and help cities lower their carbon footprints.
“Research has shown that 80 percent of the things in our house, we don’t use more than once a month,” Weddepohl explains. “So if we can create access to these goods without having to own them, we can cut the CO2 emissions and raw materials needed to produce these goods.”
Sharing by the block
Peerby has made inroads in every city in the Netherlands, and now has 15,000 users in Amsterdam in just about every type of neighborhood. That makes Amsterdam a good place to see how Weddepohl's vision is working out.
Of course, Peerby isn't the only app focused on facilitating sharing among strangers. “Collaborative consumption” is an increasingly meaningful buzz-phrase in a growing number of cities around the world. Everything from car rides (Uber, Lyft, Bla Bla Car, Snappcar) to meals (PlateCulture, MealSharing) to lodging (Airbnb, Couchsurfing) to clothes (DigNSwap, Rewear) can be exchanged through apps.
Peerby is a little different. Many other sharing sites start with the supply side of the equation—can I make a little money from an extra room in my house? Weddepohl says Peerby starts with the demand side of the equation—I need something, now. And it works, particularly in densely populated areas where there are lots of people who can answer requests. A Peerby user named Olivier put it to me this way: “I just needed a hammer drill and Peerby seems a very easy way to get one at short notice. It worked perfectly.”
Another difference is that Peerby can work at a micro scale. Weddepohl estimates that it takes about 10 people in a neighborhood to join for the site to become useful to those people. Peerby isn't disrupting entire local industries the way Uber is with taxis or Airbnb is with hotels. But if users in a particular area are active, it can change consumption patterns in just one city block or even within a single apartment building.
When Weddepohl talks to people from other countries, he often hears that Peerby must be a Dutch thing, tapping some unique communitarian DNA that exists only in Holland. Yet Peerby is spreading to other countries and following the same usage patterns as it does here. The app is successful in Belgium and Germany and has started to take off in San Francisco as well. Peerby doesn’t officially launch with marketing in a new country until there’s already a significant base of users there.
“Why would people want to share their stuff?” Weddepohl asks. “There is always this presumption that money is the driving force behind people’s behavior. But basically it works the same in every country. Worldwide research has shown that at least 50 percent of the population is willing to share.”
Different ideas about ‘sharing’
Marion Wijnberg is one of those who is willing to share. When she heard about Peerby, the 57-year old looked around her home and saw all sorts of stuff others might find useful. “I have collected so many things over the years, why not share them with other people?” Wijnberg told me. “I think it is a great idea, and good for the planet.”
Wijnberg hasn't had a great experience with Peerby, however. She says she has lent out at least 30 items through the service. And while Peerby has made it easier for urban dwellers to borrow things, it hasn't solved the age-old problem of deadbeats not bringing the stuff back on time—or at all.
“I have heard so many excuses,” Wijnberg says. “One woman even expected me to come to her house to pick up the kitchen machine I lent her. Another time, I lent someone several items of camping equipment. You would expect that person might thank you with some flowers or something. But nothing of the sort. I wasn't raised like that. Once someone brought me a home-baked apple pie, though, which I really appreciated. Not that it's mandatory, but it’s a nice gesture. Instead, you have to phone people and beg to get your things back.”
Peerby has stumbled into a few other social gray areas. Goods exchanged on Peerby are not supposed to change ownership—they have to be returned. But It’s not always clear if users want to borrow something or just want to have it. Wijnberg complains of people “begging,” because they clearly do not intend to bring back the things. “This is sometimes quite confusing,” she says, adding that she is done with using Peerby.
Lenders can send mixed messages, too. Some do use Peerby to simply get rid of stuff. Elly Wijnands is one of them. “I had a huge amount of nails, screws, and hooks that I didn't know what to do with,” Wijnands says. “So I offered them on Peerby and made two people happy. And at the same time it cleaned up my house." It seems that not everyone on Peerby has the same definition of “sharing.”
They also have different ideas about what kinds of things can be borrowed. Peerby is supposed to be restricted to the borrowing of actual goods. But there are many requests for hitching rides to another city, or for help with moving or putting a closet together. I am guilty of this myself: I used Peerby to ask people in my neighborhood to share their stories about the service—not exactly a "good" the way Peerby intends it.
Other pillars of the sharing economy have solved the trust problem with ratings systems. On Airbnb, for example, both the owner and user of a room can rate their experience with each other. Ratings allow users to build a positive reputation. Which is key, in the eyes of Rachel Botsman, the author of an influential book on collaborative consumption. As Botsman put it in a TED talk, “Our reputation is our most valuable asset on the internet.”
Peerby hasn’t turned to ratings, and that may be one more way Peerby is a little different from other sharing sites. These aren't anonymous transactions among people on the internet who may never meet each other. Peerby is for neighbors. When the goal of an app is to spread good will among people who shop in the same stores and use the same parks, is it socially acceptable for those people to give one another zero stars?
Peerby is working on a different response to the trust problem, which is also part of its business plan. Users are understandably reluctant to lend out expensive items such as cameras or computers. Peerby is working on an insurance product to protect lenders if their items are not returned or broken. That may require instituting some kind of a fee on borrowers, although Weddepohl says the basic service will remain free of charge.
Peerby’s other possible path to revenue is to broker the renting of goods rather than just borrowing. That would give people a financial incentive to let others use their expensive goods. It also could give Peerby a path to team up with socially conscious producers of goods to further disrupt the normal patterns of retail consumption.
Many producers want to make consumer products that are more sustainable, but their profits rely on selling as many items as they can. Weddepohl has been discussing a new model with a building supply chain. Why should consumers buy a new power drill when the average time used during its lifetime is 13 minutes? Perhaps there’s a way consumers could pay for every hole they drill instead of a whole machine.
Weddepohl and his team are thinking about this. The idea is to create another business model around a community where new goods, coming directly from the producers, are shared. “Each member of the community pays for the use of the product,” Weddepohl says. “The revenues go to the producer and a small part to Peerby. This might actually be a good incentive for producers to produce more sustainable goods.”
Peerby has investors, so the question of how the company can make money won’t go away. But it does erode some of Weddepohl’s original thought, going back to his calamitous 2009, that people in a neighborhood simply want to help each other out. When money gets involved and legal arrangements and insurances become necessary, “sharing” takes on an entirely different feel.
This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.