Design in the Age of Sharing

01. Sharing by Design

A recent post on Shareable made me think about how the culture of Sharing has been changing the discipline of Design after the success of Open Source and the Web 2.0.

We are researching and discussing how we can bring collaboration into design processes and how we can use design processes to foster collaboration, but what about developing design projects for facilitating the sharing of physical goods?

Keara Schwartz wrote a post on Shareable, trying to start a conversation about this issue; however, that post is not really deep and inspiring since she finds that the only barrier to sharing products is the lack of trust in other people we have in sharing physical products. According to Keara Schwartz, we can share digital information easily, but not physical goods as well because we don’t believe other people will take care of them as we would do; she then suggest that products might be designed differently in order to facilitate their sharing.
I believe though that this is not the point: we don’t share products because our socio-economic system has developed in that direction, not because products are not designed for being shared. And designing for facilitating the sharing has wider (and older) implications.

Nonetheless, that post is a good starting point in order to think about the issue of Design for Sharing: we have to notice that Shareable is a nonprofit online magazine that “tells the story of sharing, covering the people, places, and projects bringing a shareable world to life”. And its tagline is Sharing by Design, implying that sharing can be enabled with design.

02. Access by Design

We could argue now that we are entering into the Age of Sharing, since after the success of Open Source and of Web 2.0 new terms, theories, technologies, products and services that are based on the concept of sharing (and collaboration) are increasingly introduced. But these trends started before, though a little bit different, as Jeremy Rifkin clearly explained in his book The Age of Access:

In the hypercapitalist economy, buying things in markets and owning property become outmoded ideas, while “just-in-time” access to nearly every kind of service, through vast commercial networks operating in cyberspace, becomes the norm. We increasingly pay for the experience of using things-in the form of subscriptions, memberships, leases, and retainers-rather than for the things themselves. […]
Rifkin argues that the capitalist journey, which began with the commodification of goods and the ownership of property, is ending with the commodification of human time and experience.

As Rifkin noted, the transition from owning products to accessing them through a service started long time before the rise of the Web 2.0; it is therefore a longer trend coming from the evolution of society and economy. Design for Access came before Design for Sharing. Design, and especially Product Design, in the Age of Access means above all Product Stewardship, a concept developed as a Design for Sustainability effort with the aim of involving all the stakeholders of the life cycle of a product. With this approach, we ask all the stakeholders to take shared responsibility for the impacts to human health and the natural environment that result from the manufacturing, use, and end-of-life management of products. If we want to just access a product instead of owning it (and maybe the service is built upon its sharing it with other people), we need a lot of different players that actually manage it through its life cycle.

Product stewardship is a concept whereby environmental protection centers around the product itself, and everyone involved in the lifespan of the product is called upon to take up responsibility to reduce its environmental impact. For manufacturers, this includes planning for, and if necessary, paying for the recycling or disposal of the product at the end of its useful life. This may be achieved, in part, by redesigning products to use fewer harmful substances, to be more durable, reuseable and recyclable, and to make products from recycled materials. For retailers and consumers, this means taking an active role in ensuring the proper disposal or recycling of an end-of-life product.

Accessing a product, instead of owning it, means that the traditional life cycle of a product has to change and to be shared among all its stakeholders. Design for Access and for Sharing is more about new processes than new product typologies and technologies: it could be a way to design more proper and sustainable products (like the Universal Design / Design for All approaches).
In this direction, the post written by Andy Polaine on Core77: “Access, not ownership is the route to better products” is much more interesting and developed; moreover it explains clearly the subtle difference between Design for Access and Design for Sharing:

But sharing is different from having access to something. Sharing implies owning something first and then sharing it with others. Access can mean that a company or community own something rather than an individual, but that individuals can use it. It’s still sharing, but it doesn’t feel like you are using other people’s stuff.

Designing products to be part of an entire service-product access-not-ownership system has benefits all around. Designers can focus on designing the best product with the highest build quality possible, manufacturers enter into a longer term relationship with consumers and consumers get to use high-end products. Access, not ownership also means less use of resources and less consumer junk stowed in drawers for a few months on the way to the landfill.

03. Design for Sharing, reusing and sharing existing resources

Design for Sharing must thus start from Design for Access, developing not only better products but new product life cycles, creating systems of players interested in the products.
But yes, many of the Access businesses that Rifkin forecasted are actually taking the form of Sharing businesses: we access to products (and services) instead of owning them, not only when they are developed and offered by a company, but even when they are distributed in society (that is, social networks) and companies are just networking people to who owns (or has access) to the resources that are needed. Enter the Age of Sharing.
We could note just two books about to be published in September 2010 that tracks this change:
“What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption” written by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers, and “The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing”by Lisa Gansky. Lisa Gansky is building a directory of sharing businesses at and Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers are even suggesting us to share their book.

WHAT’S MINE IS YOURS from rachel botsman on Vimeo.

Design for Sharing can take place only if there are businesses built around sharing (and not owning), and we are approaching this stage now, since design is actually a way to shape a business and develop it around the users. Good design can’t be separated from good business and a big enough market.
How can we Design for Sharing? Developing a business about the sharing through social networks of new goods or existing and already distributed goods.

Let’s take a new example that clearly shows how we can develop Product-Service Systems (a business based on a product and on a service) reusing existing resources and products, in order to enable the sharing of physical products: SoBi, The Social Bicycle System (
Crunchgear and Wired already reviewed it.

The Social Bicycle System from Ryan Rzepecki on Vimeo.

SoBi will be the first public bike share system with the authorization, tracking, and security systems attached to the bicycle itself. SoBi uses GPS, mobile communications, and a secure lock that can attach to almost any bicycle and lock to any regular bike rack. The system does not require separate infrastructure and can be deployed at approximately one-third the cost of existing systems. Administrators will be given powerful tools to manage demand and map patterns of use. Users will enjoy door-to-door transportation and an interactive cycling experience that can track miles traveled, calories burned, CO2 emissions offset, and connections to other Social Cyclists.

SoBi: The Product

SoBi: The Service

SoBi: The Design

SoBi: The Technology

For the full description of the Product-Service System, please go to

1 Comment Design in the Age of Sharing

  1. AvatarNeal Gorenflo

    Massimo, thanks for this provocative thought piece. Definitely added another dimension to the dialog at the intersection of sharing and design. I shared it with our community at Shareable.

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