Design for sharing is an enormous, but fascinating challenge. A number of start-ups and initiatives have appeared recently that facilitate peer-to-peer exchange systems. These promote swapping, sharing, bartering, trading and renting over individual ownership. They would include Freecycle, Zopa, Ecomodo and WhipCar. A shorthand for describing their overarching concern is in what Rachel Botsman has termed ‘collaborative consumption’.
The concept of doing more with less through creating new ways of configuring, accessing and moving resources, is compelling in this age of scarcity, as Jeremy Till would have it. Indeed, this can be extended across goods and services, including the provision of public services. It is rich territory for debating social design.
So much of design, design criticism and history of design studies has been focused on objects for private consumption. Collaborative consumption, as I have briefly discussed elsewhere, challenges this model and forces us to think about how value is represented. Products and services within collaborative consumption are relatively unmediated by complicated financial calculations. Their use is mediated more through social relationships more than through the abstraction of value which, according to George Simmel, is money. In turn, these social relationships, however, depend a lot on trust.
There is a tendency to bundle up collaborative consumption as a panacea to resource constraint. Closer examination shows that each field of everyday life where this might be employed throws up its distinct problems. The design of a sharing system for private car ownership strikes right at the heart the tension between private and social practices.
If you’ve just followed the link to WhipCar, you will have found out that on 12 March 2013, sadly, it ceased operating. To listen to Ben Reason of Live|Work discuss their design labours for WhipCar was therefore an extra special treat. It is rare to hear open, reflective discussion of how things don’t go right.
Ben Reason explains WhipCar
WhipCar’s key technical advance was in establishing an insurance system that gave easier coverage for peer-to-peer car rental. Anyone who has been involved in car-sharing through informal networks across households will know that this has been a huge stumbling block. Once through this hurdle, a system like WhipCar allows car owners to release further value of their vehicles, which otherwise might sit outside their homes gathering cost. For users, it provides variety, good value and a sense of engaging in non-mainstream economies.
Car as underused asset
This last issue was also a trial, as Live|Work discovered. Much hinges on the importance of social relationships in non-mainstream exchange. After all, you are renting a car off its private owner — you probably have to shake their hand and look them in the eye before you speed off into the distance. At the same time, there is an expectation from both parties of the system working in a business-like way. You expect someone to be available to hand over keys. You hope that the car you have rented will be clean. It seemed that no amount of putting emphasis on people through the WhipCar website (by, for example, including featured participants’ photos and profiles) could make up for anxieties over levels of service. The service design challenge is very much on the before and after of car use, rather than on the cars themselves.
By contrast, Ben Reason also shared his experiences of designing for StreetCar before it became ZipCar. Here, these challenges are partially circumvented. You belong to a club, but you don’t have to worry too much about other members.
WhipCar bows out
The unfortunate demise of WhipCar contrasts obliquely with the global success of AirBnB. This service allows peer-to-peer room, apartment or house rental; but this service even extends to lighthouses, tepees and igloos. I think the clear advantage that AirBnB has is that it is built on a centuries-old tradition of renting private rooms to travellers. Equally it rides on travel and adventure (as does CouchSurfing) rather than the mundanities of getting from A to B. Travel and tourism carries an expectation of social interaction with strangers. Driving a car… less so.
If the tasks for the social designer seem ever daunting, then perhaps these were reinforced by Iain Borden‘s response. In it, he focused on the beguilingly simple question: ‘Why do people like to drive?’
A brief, bullet-point list of some of Iain Borden’s ideas shows why private car ownership is so desirable.
- driving is often presented as a democratic right and therefore a way of exercising this;
- a car provides a sealed, social space (e.g. a chance to talk to your kids without interruption);
- a car provides a media space (radios, CD players, video games in the back etc.);
- driving puts you on the edge of transgression (e.g. how far over the speed limit can you go without getting a ticket);
- driving is also about anticipation (the car in front, arrival, your next car) — an analogy of being in the modern world;
- driving is cinematic (you pretend you’re in The Italian Job, looking through the windscreen is like cinematic viewing).
This is a powerful set of experiences. The list also highlights why designing a car club has probably got to extend to re-designing the entire experience of automobile use in order to provide persuasive alternatives to private ownership. This is particularly so if driving itself is taken to be an expression of modernity. But it doesn’t have to be. It can possibly be reframed as something else…
It seems that in the meantime, private car owners are prepared to put up with the dull parts of ownership (e.g. organizing insurance, servicing, mending) for this exhilaration of driving, if it really is exhilarating.
Driving a car, though, can also be dull (think M25). Comedian Eddie Izzard has recently observed on his Force Majeure tour, that there exist two very incompatible emotions, these being boredom and fear. Driving often engages both of these. Meanwhile, WhipCar tried to make things either side of driving more interesting, or, at least, more convenient while making car ownership more environmentally sustainable.
The approaches taken by Iain Borden and Ben Reason perhaps expose the commonalities and differences between their professional interests of, respectively, cultural studies and service design in car culture. They both start with the routine and ordinary. Cultural studies then looks for the more spectacular aspects that exist as experience within these. Service design attempts to create something richer and distinct out of them.
This leads to the very final words of the evening’s discussion. Speaking from the audience, and referring back to a debate I chaired that had taken place earlier in the week at the V&A, and on which he’d been a panelist, Adam Thorpe asked: ‘Is service design done for a public, or should it be actively producing publics?’
This is the über question of design in general, these days I think. Do we find ways of refashioning what is already there? Or do we look to design to produce new practices and socio-material relationships?
It’s not about either/or, though. A crucial question in this and for social design in general is that of scale. WhipCar is also an upscaling and formalisation of informal systems that already exist. Groups of households sometimes share or lend cars. As a facility, WhipCar streamlined this. As a business, WhipCar had to extend its reach to cover its margins.
Equally, perhaps social design can also engage in downscaling by, for instance, looking at ways by which collaborative consumption systems that don’t necessarily work on a large scale can be relocalised. Just as reuse can sometimes be designed into products, so it could be designed into services.
Guy Julier, 9 May 2013