Own the service, ditch the stuff!

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Who decided that the best way to hang pictures was to own a hammer?

Perhaps it's because I live in a loft with no closets, but I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the stuff that I stash in my house – in junk drawers, under the sofa, in an old suitcase under the bed – that I don't use very often. In addition to taking up my physical space, the stuff occupies brain space (Where did I put it? Do I need to clean/refuel/repair it?) And what's worse, the stuff I have actually gives me the feeling that I need more stuff -- like a bigger apartment, or at least more furniture with drawers.

Product-service systems provide an innovative take on ownership that takes a big step toward solving the problem of stuff. In sustainability circles (and definitely here on Worldchanging), the concept of owning the experience rather than the stuff itself has gotten a lot of attention. In fact, one of the most recognized icons of product-service systems--car sharing--has roots right here in Seattle (though Seattle-born Flexcar recently merged with Massachusetts-based Zipcar).

Photo credit: Flickr/mvjantzen

Membership in a car sharing organization makes it easy for anyone who has infrequent driving needs to access the ability to drive … without the expense and headache associated with parking, maintaining, fueling and insuring a private vehicle. By some estimates, each shared vehicle takes as many as 15 private cars off the road.

And another perk: car sharing allows you to choose which car you want to drive the day you drive it. When you're moving furniture, take one of Zipcar's pick-ups, vans or SUVs. But if you're going to the grocery store, you can make the trip in a Prius or Mini Cooper. So there's no need to own the largest car you can afford simply to accommodate the few times you'll need to haul a big load. Sharing means not only less work for each member individually, but a more flexible service that can mold itself to each member's needs as they arise.

If we take the product-service model to a smaller scale, we get down to my issue with the hammer. The Phinney Neighborhood Center's tool lending library is one example of group ownership working to everyone's advantage. This program, still in a growth phase with limited hours, nevertheless shows the possibilities. For reasonable weekly use fees that generally range from $2 to $30 (a few expensive appliances run $80-$115), you can borrow the tool you need for your job, and then return it (with no need to clear another storage space in your home!). Available tools include basics like extension cords and wrenches, yard tools like lawn mowers and pruning shears, and even advanced equipment like a pressure washer, cement mixer or table saw.

Or you can take the product-service model bigger, to communally owned spaces. One example of this has sprung up for independent workers in search of office space.

Photo credit: Flickr/officenomads

Coworking allows workers to rent space, utilities and in many cases, office services and amenities like conference rooms, for a monthly fee. It's more social than working from home, but more focused than working from a café, and there are already a number of these facilities, with a variety of personalities, amenities and rates, in and around Seattle. Though coworking often replaces working from home, it has potential to offer individuals and even small businesses an alternative to maintaining a separate office space, or let commuter employees at larger companies work productively, while remaining within walking distance of their homes.

It strikes me that neighborhood-centric Seattle is the perfect kind of place for sharing programs like this to spring up. With local central hubs already naturally occurring in the various neighborhoods, there are plenty of opportunities to situate pick-up and drop-off spots, or communally used spaces, in locations that are convenient for many people. And because space in Seattle is expensive to own, many residents have good reason to seek more effective solutions for renting space or storing stuff.

So what other kinds of product-service systems would make sense for Seattle?

Photo credit: Flickr/malias

One example of a good idea from overseas: public bike programs in Europe allow citizens to access bikes when they need them, for a nominal usage fee. Overall, the programs are hugely successful, and continue to grow because they have proven to be such an asset for the urban population. Though they have encountered some challenges, like the tendency for bikes to collect at the bottom of hills, with few riders willing to ride them back up, they were able to adapt to these problems—for example, a truck now regularly collects bikes downhill and returns them to the top, and riders get incentives to drop bikes off at "high" stations.

What might a bike-sharing program look like in Seattle? And better yet, what other product-service systems can you envision for our city?

(Top photo credit: Flickr/rakka, licensed by Creative Commons).


Hey, it's Office Nomads on World Changing! This is exciting! We've been having a blast over here watching folks discover there are more options for independent worker then slugging away all alone at home or jumping from coffee shop to coffee shop. It's important to understand that an office is more then desks, conference rooms, and equipment. It's really about the people. We offer a free trial day so people can experience the office first hand and get a feel for the space. Susan Evans and I own and operate Office Nomads and pour our hearts and souls into it. It really shows and we can see that in the amazing group of people that use the space every day. We also work closely with the other spaces in the area and around the country and enjoy watching everything develop. This is an exciting time.

Posted by: Jacob Sayles on July 2, 2008 1:08 PM

When I was at the University of Montana, they had a bike-borrow program. At the student union building was a long row of yellow cruiser bikes with coasting brakes that were numbered. To check one out you'd leave your student ID at the front desk, they'd assign you a bike and give a key to its bike lock, and it was yours as long as you needed it. Because of the ID, no one ever biked off with one. I love this idea so very much, especially with a truck bringing them back up (like to Capitol Hill?) because I'm such a very bad bike rider. I don't know what kind of collateral could be used, maybe a photocopy of your driver's license?

Posted by: Glasses on July 15, 2008 3:02 AM