Peer-to-peer expert on transforming Ghent into sharing metropolis


Michel Bauwens is spending the next three months learning about sharing initiatives in Ghent, to help the city reinforce and facilitate citizen-led projects

The theory of sharing

The sharing economy is gaining momentum, and Ghent just might be leading the way in Flanders. According to a recent study by the Flemish socio-ecological thinktank Oikos, the number of civic initiatives in Ghent grew tenfold in the last decade, prompting the city to call in the help of Michel Bauwens.

The Flemish peer-to-peer expert has just begun a three-month research project, culminating in a commons transition plan to help Ghent reinforce and facilitate citizen-led initiatives. The “commons” concept refers to the shared production and consumption of goods in a more sustainable society.

Flemish cities are rife with such initiatives – car sharing, for instance, has taken off, while a growing number of residents use smartphone apps to lend power tools, instead of buying them.

Bauwens is a pioneer in the theory of the sharing economy. In 2005, he founded P2P Foundation, a global network of researchers and activists who focus on commons-based society. 

Learning from mistakes

Eight years later, he released the bestseller Saving the world: With P2P Towards a Postcapitalist Society. The French newspaper Libération called him the “leading theorist on the theme of co-operative economy”.

Bauwens grew up in Groot-Bijgaarden, Flemish Brabant, but he now lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he moved in 2003, having left his job in the regular economy. “Even back then, the symptoms were obvious: ecological decline, climate change and rising social inequality,”  he says. “I was part of a system that created problems instead of solving them. I didn’t think I should wait for someone else to do it.”

In Thailand, Bauwens began studying history to find new and more sustainable economic models, painstakingly observing societal transitions and crises of civilisations.

The sharing economy is a step in the right direction – if the state can’t solve the problem, why not do it ourselves?

- Michel Bauwens

“The end of the Roman Empire, the start of feudalism, the tripling of Europe’s population and the rise of cloisters,” he says. “All transitions share a set of common elements: pooling of resources, a massive spread of information through new systems of communication, and the displacement of production and labour.”

By that definition, Bauwens continues, we are now going through another transition. “Our economic model is in a crisis. To mitigate its consequences, people make use of the internet to pool resources and spread knowledge. They organise themselves outside the existing systems of corporations or states.”

The blog in which Bauwens presented his work quickly gained global attention, resulting in the P2P Foundation as we know it today: 12 intellectuals thinking about the emancipatory possibilities of new technologies.

In 2014, Bauwens led a first research project in Ecuador aimed at making the country independent from extractive industries. Now it’s Ghent’s turn. 

Moving ahead

“Basically, Ghent wants to know what’s happening,” explains Bauwens. “I will begin by mapping out all the initiatives and trying to figure out what resources are being pooled. Then I’ll see need if the initiatives can result in new jobs.”

He’ll also find out what these local initiatives expect from the city, he says. While Bauwens researches the situation in Ghent, his collaborator will be travelling around the world to find similar initiatives.

Places like Bologna, Seoul and Milan have taken important steps to facilitate the sharing economy. In Barcelona, Bauwens says, market speculation has caused a spike in rental prices and the cost of real estate, while 40% of the housing stock sits vacant. Together with civic organisations, the city has worked out a legal framework allowing temporary habitation.

Another success story, Bauwens continues, is Amsterdam. The Dutch capital assigned a row of office buildings right outside the canal belt to a group of co-working initiatives, leading to a 20% reduction in traffic. Similar efforts are taking place across Europe, but they remain very fragmented, he adds.

“We need oversight, and not only as a place to draw inspiration from,” Bauwens says. “Cities can act as intermediaries to provide citizen-led initiatives with information on what’s happening in other places.”

Another way is to bring residents who share the same goals together. “Cities can also co-operate with each other, sharing knowledge or pooling resources like land or infrastructure.”

At the moment, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic, Bauwens says. “But pessimism doesn’t lead anywhere. The sharing economy is a step in the right direction – if the state can’t solve the problem, why don’t we do something about it ourselves?”

Photo: Edelseider/Wikimedia