I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.
By the third day of any conference, one’s eyes begin to glaze over. But Lisa Gansky provided an intellectual jolt on the final morning of the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco this week when she appeared on stage to talk about “the Mesh.”
That’s what Gansky, a veteran Internet entrepreneur, calls the confluence of social networks, GPS-enabled mobile technology (smartphones, iPads, and the like) and the tagging of physical objects with chips that pinpoint their location.
“The Mesh is a fundamental shift in our relationship to the things in our lives,” said Gansky, who has written a book by the same name. “We’re moving to an economy where access to goods and services trumps ownership of them. The opportunity of the Mesh is to really design and support better things easily shared.”
“The recession has caused us to ask what the real value of things versus the cost,” she added. “This is a time where we’re more connected to more people than ever before.”
And so in recent years, we’ve seen the rise of a panoply of peer-to-peer services, beginning with music sharing in the Napster era to peer-to-peer money lending to car sharing.
The advent of smartphones and social networks like Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and Yelp has accelerated the trend. But whether the Mesh is a plaything of the urban techno-hipsters or represents the advent of new economic model, as Gansky posits, remains to be seen.
But what struck me is the truly radical economic notion enmeshed in the Mesh: The more we share our stuff, the less we need to buy all that new stuff that inevitably leads to ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions, environmental degradation, and the pursuit of unsustainable consumption.
“If we look at ourselves as a global community, we have a lot of stuff,” Gansky said. “What we actually use of the stuff we have is a really small percentage.”
Gansky noted that people in the United States and Europe typically use their cars only 8 percent of the day. “For most people, the second most expensive thing we own is just sitting for most of the time,” she said.
So why not make cars share-ready when they roll off the assembly line?
“Not only in terms of their ability of to tap into a network but so when I buy a car and I automatically and easily have the option to make it available to somebody else to use and pay me or not,” Gansky said.
She noted that it took six years for Zipcar, which lets people rent vehicles by the hour in urban areas, to build a fleet of 1,000 cars. But it only took six months for WhipCar, a peer-to-peer car sharing service, to put 1,000 cars in service after its launch last year in the U.K. That’s because WhipCar lets people share their personal cars, much like the U.S. services Getaround, RelayRide and Spride Share.
Now think about embedding that ability to share in all sorts of objects.
Gansky acknowledged that getting people to change long-entrenched habits and cultural attitudes about ownership won’t be easy.
“We have experiences in our lives where sharing was irresistible but how do we do that on a regular basis and in a scalable way,” she said. “Generally, people change their habits when one thing happens — their pants are on fire.”
But you only have to turn on the news to know its getting hot in here.