In futuristic sci-fi scenarios, while we grapple with bioengineering and artificial intelligence, we should also consider the public library.
Patrons could borrow a copy of Blade Runner, a table saw, a blender and a tennis racket from what Lawrence Alvarez calls “resource hubs.”
He hopes this is where the sharing economy is headed – one-stop lending.
Alvarez is the co-founder of the Toronto Tool Library, a growing tool-sharing organization on trend with the likes of titans Uber and Airbnb. He’s an entrepreneur in the popular and lucrative sharing economy – the market where individuals rent out property to strangers and access is the new ownership.
But Alvarez isn’t in it for the money. Instead, the non-profit library lends donated tools to members for an annual $50 fee (negotiable for students and low-income neighbours), in order to help build a more sustainable community and world.
He is reversing an ironic trend started by the sharing economy – commercializing the basic human instinct to share.
The sharing economy has largely been hijacked by for-profits like Airbnb, whose founders are now billionaires. But for-profit companies miss markets that lack strong financial motivation – hyper local groups or marginalized populations – where economies of scale don’t work. It’s why Uber, the ride-sharing program, is largely available in dense urban areas. And a recent study suggests that collaborative consumers tend to be affluent millennials, since they are the target demographic.
Tool libraries are popping all over Canada. Valhalla members visited one in Montreal.
There’s nothing wrong with the for-profit sharing model, but there is also room for people with more altruistic goals to leverage the changing culture of sharing, and to avoid excluding certain groups.
When we’re young, we’re taught to share in order to build friendships. Then we grow up and accumulate stuff to gain status. Maybe we’ve reached the zenith of individual materialism and are now evolving to value reputation and reciprocity in our transactions. In the non-profit sharing economy Alvarez is advancing, we rely on our neighbours more, hearkening back to a time before we put up fences.
The same trust that allows strangers to sleep in our beds via Airbnb allows us to share things for free; it’s the spirit of the sharing economy that could use a boost beyond profit. There’s already neighbourhood.net, a non-profit forum for residents in some Canadian cities to share everything from ladders and bikes to coffee grinders and cat carriers. Swapsity, a social enterprise, hosts a bartering website where people post both skills and wish lists. One user is looking to swap German lessons or pet sitting for a microwave or organic produce.
While a culture of sharing helps build communities, it also preserves our planet. Sharing resource-intensive things like cars and power tools saves energy and may help combat a cultural obsession with ownership and acquiring things.
We would love to see the non-profit sharing model go regional for smaller and at-risk communities that are underserved by the sharing-for-profit market. In the U.K., the charity Food Cycle takes surplus food donated from grocers, cooks it up with kitchen space shared by volunteers near its local hubs, and delivers it to those at risk of food poverty.
As kids, our first social action campaign was a petition to save the Gallanough Public Library in Thornhill, Ont., which makes us especially excited about last month’s opening of a Toronto Tool Library location at Downsview Public Library – the first tool-lending program in a Canadian public library.
More libraries need to diversify, making it possible for a whole neighbourhood to share not just a dog-eared copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, but an inventory of kitchen appliances and lawn mowers in a culture that values resource preservation and community over having lots of stuff.
For now, you can borrow a novel and hammer from a single location. The future is here.
Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity Free The Children, the social enterprise Me to We and the youth empowerment movement We Day.