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Podcast #65 - Neal Gorenflo on the REAL Sharing Economy


We welcomed back Neal Gorenflo, co-founder of Shareable, to discuss his thoughts on the changes he's seen around the sharing economy in the past year, the Sharing Cities Network and it's impact, and the soon to be released book Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons.


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Adam: Welcome to episode 65 of The Crowd. I’m talking to Neal Gorenflo, doer of a lot of stuff and co-founder at shareable.net.


Welcome to Near Me’s podcast, The Crowd, bringing you interviews from thought leaders in the collaborative economy who’ll be sharing their knowledge, diverse real world experiences and stuff you need to know to help build a successful marketplace. I’m your host Adam Broadway. Thanks for joining us.


Neal Gorenflo is co-founder of shareable.net which is a nonprofit with a mission to empower everyone to share for a more joyous, resilient and equitable world. Neal became an expert on sharing through 10 years of entrepreneurship, thought leadership and as an avid practitioner. He’s consulted with the Institute for the Future, Stanford University, Lowe’s Home Improvement and lots of startups. His expertise has been featured by the Today Show, NBC Nightly News, CBS Sunday Morning, Wired, Fast Company and the list goes on. He’s a sought after speaker at SXSW, Sustainable Brands and SOCAP with his penned thoughts featured in YES! Magazine, 7x7 Magazine, The Urbanist and again the list goes on. There’s a bunch of other stuff that I could tell you about his accomplishments but having spent time with Neal, the most important thing is he’s a genuine guy who is definitely making a difference for good. And it was my privilege to get the chance to speak with him.


In this podcast, Neal shares his thoughts on changes he’s seen in the past 12 months around the sharing economy, the Sharing Cities Network and its impact and the soon to be released book Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons.


Hi everybody. Adam Broadway here with Neal Gorenflo who is co-founder of Shareable, a nonprofit with a mission to empower everybody, everybody to share for a more joyous, resilient and equitable world. Neal, it’s great to have you on The Crowd podcast again and I appreciate you taking the time.


Neal: Oh my pleasure, Adam.


Adam: I know you’ve been here before and you had a great chat with Kevin Cohen. So I’d love to get an update on what’s happened since then.


Neal: Absolutely. Well, let’s dive in.


Adam: All right. Well, you did share last time a very powerful and a personal story about your emotional moment on a hill after a jog that made you stop and pause and reevaluate your life. And I was genuinely touched when I read that because it’s quite a vulnerable moment that you shared. How’s the journey been for you since that time?


Neal: It’s been a real adventure and that’s kind of what I wanted in life to write my own script so to speak. And that comes with all the joys and pains that come with a true adventure, a true journey. So there have been incredible highs speaking at conferences in front of thousands of people, on national television and also some very big challenges. Running a nonprofit is really hard work and the struggle there continues.


Adam: What would you say is something you can point out that would be one of the hardest challenges in doing that, in running a nonprofit? And are there ways that the community can help?


Neal: Yeah. The biggest challenge is actually most nonprofits have two jobs. They have to run their programs for impact and then they have to do fundraising. And sometimes, these are not really well connected. And it’s almost like two businesses in one. So you have to do a lot more with less. Whereas in a business, you have a single, sometimes a much more focused effort where what you do is how you get paid at the same time. So it’s just an example. And so what Shareable is gravitating towards strategically is getting really focused on our editorial and how we can convert our readers into supporters. So this will bring, this will help I think make our job easier.


Adam: Excellent. Well, what’s been some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the past 12 months particularly around the sharing economy that you’re an expert in?


Neal: Yeah. I really look at the sharing economy like as a really broad phenomenon that there is this VC, Silicon Valley style sharing economy that tends to get all the press. And then there’s another part of the sharing economy that’s just as exciting and also maybe even bigger than what we hear most about in the mainstream media. And there’s a lot of action in both. In the sort of startup world, VC’s funding is slowing. Companies have to get cash flow positive, really be serious about making money as opposed to focusing so much on growth. We see the leaders like Airbnb and Uber struggling with global expansion, fighting regulatory battles all over the world. And instead of this idea of a kind of global coverage which they hoped for, it’s starting to look more like a patchwork of coverage where they find allies in some places and not a friendly environment in other places.


We also see some real progress in self-driving cars. Robin Chase wrote this awesome opinion piece and analysis recently alerting everyone that they’re coming faster than we expect and the impacts could be huge and it’s time to decide now how this trend should be shaped so it delivers benefits instead of making problems worse. And I think the implications for cities are really important and large. Some experts estimate that 90 percent of cars in cities could be taken off the road which would open up all kinds of new space. Former roadway and parking lots could be used for open space for agriculture and maybe most importantly affordable housing. But decisions about how this will be shaped need be, we need to start thinking about that now and start deciding now so it delivers the social impact that’s possible.


And then on the sort of I would say commons based or civil society aspect of the sharing economy, we have the Sharing Cities Movement which we were a pioneer in and have been supporting with our coverage and activism. It has become a global movement. We have a flagship leader. Seoul, South Korea with a mayor –this is a program coming directly from the mayor of the city who is also looking like he may become the president of South Korea who has inspired cities all over the world to start the Sharing Cities Program. You have activity in Amsterdam and Barcelona and London and San Francisco. And the list keeps growing. So that’s really interesting.


You have also this development of platform cooperatives which are kind of reaction to the tightly held for profit, growth obsessed sharing economy that gets all the headlines. This takes the sharing economy idea and blends it with cooperatives. So the people providing the service on platforms, the providers, the drivers and the hosts for instance would be the owners and decision makers in the business. So we have –


Adam: That’s a great model.


Neal: That’s a great model. Yeah.


Adam: Yeah. Well, they become shareholders in the platform effectively.


Neal: Shareholders and idea contributors and decision makers. In this way, you better mobilize the crowd. So there is a kind of moral obligation I feel like in the times that we live in to give people a voice and ways to make fair wages and make a livelihood. But at the same time, there is also a business advantage. There are very practical reasons for mobilizing your stakeholders for success, all of them.


Adam: Absolutely. Well, everybody has a feeling and a sense of ownership as well which you don’t get in that sort of employee or contractor approach that so many marketplace models are.


Neal: Yeah, exactly. I think you can get a big competitive advantage. So we see companies kind of heading in that direction with a kind of spectrum of approaches starting with one side to kind of B Corporation status and then some having a mix of like traditional VC investment and then also having user investment and ownership and decision making and then some way on the other end which are just straight up legal cooperatives that offer sort of a sharing economy platform service.


Adam: Question going back to – you’ve initiated the Sharing Cities Network and it’s been well received. And I think in 2004 you said you mobilized 80 groups from 80 different cities around the world who’d began mapping the sharing resources where they lived. What do those numbers look like now? And then I have a question about the political end of it.


Neal: Yes. So in 2014, we started something called the Sharing Cities Network that’s built off of some work we did in San Francisco, with the City of San Francisco to help them launch the sharing economy working group. That was in 2011. And we just saw a growing interest especially from the grassroots. And we invited our community readers to get active in their local community, to do things like do a map jam which is, which you referred to, getting small groups together to map what can be shared in their local community, in their city. And then also do sharefests which were take all those dots on the map, all those projects and services that are there, all those resources, bring the people behind them together and showcase everything in a public way in a kind of celebration.


Adam: Very cool.


Neal: We created a lot of momentum and initiated a lot of things that continue to this day. And what we heard most from our network was that they really wanted a better idea of what a sharing city meant. So we took that to heart and launched a book project this year and it’s a global collaborative book project for a book called Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons. We have a team of 19 fellows from all over the world and we’re connecting literally hundreds of projects to get their stories and put them together in a 200-page book with hundreds of examples, case studies and policies that people – they can take this book and not only do they get a picture, a real picture, a tangible picture of what a sharing city is through examples not theory but then they can – it’s kind of a catalogue of hope. They can pick out something or a number of things. They put in either a political platform or a programmatic platform for an organization or just they see something they want to do that specific thing in their community.


Adam: So a whole bunch of practical case studies that can be replicated anywhere. When is that coming out?


Neal: That’s going to come out in December.


Adam: All right. Just in time for Christmas everybody.


Neal: Yeah.


Adam: Now, a question on the political side. Because having these case studies and everything is fantastic because these are real evidence of the impact that these initiatives are having in these different cities around the world. How and what is the political dance like and in trying to get the right politician or politicians involved? As you mentioned with South Korea, how awesome is that to have someone like that who is possibly going to become president or whatever they call that? Is it president? Is it –


Neal: I think it’s president.


Adam: President, Prime Minister, President? But the head of state. How do you get that dance right where so many career politicians are just – it’s a four-year cycle for them. They look very short term. They’re not thinking generationally. It’s thinking four years versus four years. How do you work around that? Or how do you have those longer term visions for change?


Neal: Man, it’s like anything else, Adam. You have to build grassroots support. There has to be people behind the idea that can advocate for their vision. And so part of the reason behind the Sharing Cities Network and all the activity that we catalyzed – and it’s kind of a twofold thing. First, there’s a lot that you can do without asking for any permission. A lot of the examples in the book that we give, things like tool libraries and time banks and community gardens can be done with little money and no permission from any politician. It’s just the residents freely associating to meet their common needs. And so we are really big on that as a starting place but we’ve also learned. Our history is that it can’t end there because for those projects to thrive, before a kind of sharing paradigm to become important if not dominant you have to also create the political conditions, political, cultural, economic conditions so that it can thrive.


Adam: So they cannot legislate it out of doing what they’re doing at the grassroots level.


Neal: Yeah, exactly. And you’d be surprised at what kinds of things are not legal to do.


Adam: Eggs and sharing. I mean, that’s been a major issue that I’ve seen and kind of bull. Like farmers going to jail if they gave their milk away because it was going to waste. Or you can’t buy eggs that way because it hasn’t gone through the regulatory required supply chain, i.e. into the hands of a large corporate that’s been approved to sell and then make their cut on the transaction. So you can be cynical about it like I am often. But how do you get around those? And I think that grassroots point is how do you lobby and lobby like the big lobby groups can? And you do that with sheer numbers and will I guess.


Neal: Yeah, exactly. Well, I’ll give you an example of something that was really surprising to me and to many people in sort of the gardening and farming area. We had seen and charted the rise of seed libraries across the United States and also beyond. But there was an incident in a library in Pennsylvania. It was a seed library within a public library and there was a local politician or regulator that said that it was illegal. They were applying commercial seed regulation to this informal seed exchange and even saying things, going so far as to say it’s like a national security threat. It’s a little ridiculous but we started – Sustainable Economies Law Center, really they took the lead. They’re a fantastic organization across the bay from us in Oakland. But we worked with them on a campaign to get new seed library legislation or new provisions that allow this informal exchange of seeds between neighbors. So that was really weird and surprising. Like I can’t share seeds with my neighbor. Are you kidding me? But this is the kind of thing you got and kind of almost economic rights that we need to fight for.


Adam: Absolutely and it should be a right.


Neal: Yeah, yeah.


Adam: And not just the right of the legislation that has been enacted to support large corporate interests for the most part.


Neal: Right. Or put barriers in place so that small businesses and individuals can’t do for themselves. And another example of this is also another issue that the Sustainable Economies Law Center is working on and that we’ve written about on Shareable and is in our last policy guide is these cottage food laws. So you kind of hinted at this and this is the idea that an individual or a small group, they can’t sell food unless they go through the expensive process of testing and certification, have a commercial, work in a commercial kitchen. So what the Sustainable Economies Law Center did was work on a law in which there are certain foods that pose very little danger that can be produced at home and sold by individuals and small groups with minimal testing and fees and so forth. And so it’s about getting also some nuance in here and room in the laws for lots of different situations.


Adam: Adam’s Home Sushi Service is probably not going to, it’s probably not going to try but Adam’s Bread Making Service would be –


Neal: Or cookies, baked good, jams, jellies, that kind of stuff. You’re not going to kill someone with that. But stuff with like meat and eggs, okay, that’s a little bit riskier.


Adam: Absolutely. And so much of this is common sense and it’s trying to get that common sense element into policy to help these sorts of community thrive. It’s important. So we’ve looked at and talked about the community aspect and the sharing side of things. And I do understand where your point is when you talk about and I don’t – you didn’t say the word hijack but I certainly use the word hijack. And look, I’m an entrepreneur and I’m building a platform for marketplaces at profit. So let me be very transparent about that but I’m also altruistic and I see why it’s important for community and projects to also exist. But where are these in examples where corporate and large enterprise brands might be supporting this movement or community projects, groups that have a truly sharing approach versus actually I’m in the sharing economy but it’s all about you sharing your money into my bank account for the most part and it’s a profit generating thing? And they have hijacked the term to a degree.


Neal: Right. Well, it’s a couple of different things. There is this move for open innovation and involving customers more in the business. And also there are – I heard of instances where there’s benefit with participation, that the value that’s created is shared in those cases. So I think that is a positive development that could be pushed even further. And I think that corporations would do well to involve a wider range of stakeholders and especially their customers, the ones that pay the bill in important decisions. And I don’t see why there shouldn’t be representatives from the customer base on the board of directors of every corporation. We had touched on this idea of platform coops and there are some, a couple, a few cool examples.


There’s out of Germany a company called fairmondo and it’s an ethical eBay. So it’s a platform and legally it’s a cooperative so the sellers on the platform own the platform. They’ve had some success in Germany. They want to expand globally but do it in a different way through a network of local coops who operate country-based markets. So it would be a kind of federated structure and a federated and distributed sort of global expansion model. So I think that’s very promising. I think that will be challenging to pull off but I think it points to a positive future direction that more enterprises should really look at.


There’s a stock photo company called Stocksy that was started by some ex stock photo executive who sold their old company and wanted to do it differently this time. They saw that they could do better by their photographers and so they built a service that the photographers actually own. And I think they’re doing something like five million in business now and they’ve already given some dividends back to their photographers. They offer super competitive rates but it’s plenty for them to make money at the same time. So I think that when you take, when you treat the people that you depend on for your business to be successful well, you also do well.


Adam: Yeah, it’s so true. I love that model because it’s not exploitation and it’s not coring the market or monopolizing it. It’s being fair and equitable. And of course, the platform providers and service providers and the hardware manufacturers and the internet service, they all need their bills paid but ultimately it’s okay, where is the most value coming from? It’s from the supply side and of course, the demand side where the customers are coming and creating the supply side by demanding it. So both of those need to get the fair lion’s share of the profit and the value.


Neal: Right. And it’s kind of a model of what do you want? Like a large bit of a small thing or a small bit of something that’s huge. I think that when you share in this way that you have a shot at the ladder which can be more rewarding for everyone.


Adam: Yeah. I had thought of Intel actually while you’re talking about some companies who are leveraging their community. They got 20 million developers in their community globally. They’re not employees. They’re a community. They’ve got a user account on the Intel service. They’ve launched Dev Mesh. And I plug it because we’re powering it. But their initiative was around building community projects and groups so that they could surface and enable all of that community to connect with each other, share projects, collaborate, share knowledge, create groups and then ultimately be able to – the payback for Intel is wow, here’s a guy creating a digital cane to help blind people with this sonar thing using an Intel processor. Wow! How can we sponsor that person? How can we get that person’s idea out there mainstream? So there’s a return on investment or a return on relationship as Ted Rubin likes to say, return on relationship between the corporate entity and the community that they are really responsible to nurture. Let’s face it. With Facebook and LinkedIn and others, they’ve lost their community, they’ve lost control over the community. Other platforms own it. But they can get it back and that’s through cooperatives and through other means. Corporate can take some case studies from your book I think that’s coming out and we should be able to put some copies into their hands. Maybe we should talk about a sponsorship deal after the call, Neal. I’m excited by it.


Neal: Yeah, right. Cool.


Adam: I’d like to also touch on some things that have come up. I know you mentioned the blockchain in your previous conversation with Kevin.


Neal: Right.


Adam: Of course, that’s an example of distributed ledgers using an encrypted means. And then we have the big name out there, Bitcoin as something that people – what’s this Bitcoin? And it’s going up. It’s very volatile. It’s flattening out a little now. It’s becoming more mainstream and accepted. And now, we see the bank consortiums jumping on the blockchain approach. They have a consortia with banks from around the world who are looking at it. And the Bank of London even has come out with their own blockchain Bitcoin competitor if you like called RS coin. How do you see that playing out? And what are the implications for sort of the democratized version of the blockchain versus the corporatized regulated version?


Neal: Well, it may play out a little bit the way that open source software has played out in that there are these vibrant commons where people freely build and share software and use software and also the corporations play a part in the ecosystem as contributors and users. And they - corporations love it because it drives down their cost. And also they can get some points for being a supporter of open source software projects. So I think that model may apply or play out in the blockchain world.


Adam: And are you using it much more yourself in the last 12 months? So has it been something that’s kind of sat in your digital wallet?


Neal: Well, I experiment with it if nothing else to just learn. And a while back, there’s a project called Ethereum which takes the blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin and generalizes it so that it can be used for many different types of applications. You can start a currency. You can start an organization. You can start or do or create smart contracts. There’s a variety of applications that you can use Ethereum for. So it’s a framework to build things. And so I bought some Ether to support the project. And nine months later, I was sort of like I wonder what’s going on with that. So I checked it out. And it was like my $100 investment in the Ethereum projectwas worth something like $3000. And I was like wow, that’s crazy! What’s going on there?


Adam: That’s amazing.


Neal: It’s amazing. I wasn’t looking for the money. I just thought it was kind of interesting that people freely associated to create wealth amongst each other. The implications of that are huge. And following on that, some of the people involved in the Ethereum project started a project called the DAO and that stands for Distributed Autonomous Organization. And it was a crowd funding. It was going to be a sort of blockchain-based venture fund, funded by individuals basically. They raised $150 million dollars. And I put some of my Ether into this project. And then the way they were going to run it was that people decide. People who’ve invested have voting rights and they could decide what kind of blockchain projects or applications should be built and could vote for their money to go in certain ways. And I thought this was a worthy experiment. Well, what happened was some hackers exploited the smart – there was a kind of flaw in the smart contract and they did a kind of attack and started draining money into a child’s, I guess, blockchain or DAO which wasn’t what was intended. They were just going to withdraw this money and not spend it on an enterprise or a new application.


And so this caused a huge discussion and crisis in that community about what is the right way to go. There purists who say look, they followed the rules. It’s not what was intended but that’s what’s in the code. So you should just let it happen, let them take the money and run. And there were others who were like no, that’s not – we’re betraying the trust of the people who invested in us. Also, people don’t want to lose their money. And what ended up happening is like a hard fork. So now, there are two Ethereums basically, classic and the new one, from the hard fork. And I think what it shows you is this is kind of a Wild West. It’s a new frontier and people are experimenting and trying new things. Also, this project, the DAO, I think there was a lot of idealism there. And now, you naivete even and so this community is learning.


Adam: The Utopian approach is great in theory but I think it only takes one person with the wrong motive who comes in and subverts everything to tip the card over. So there’s got to be those checks and balances. But it’s very interesting. We’ll be very interested to see how everything plays out particularly now with the banks involved in this approach with the blockchain. I’m interested. I’m keeping tabs on it. So I’ll check in with you again in another 12 months and see where you’re at.


Neal: Yeah.


Adam: I’m going to wrap it up because I know we’ve got limited time and I know you’ve got lots of things to do. But before we go, have you got any final thoughts that you’d like to share with the audience just around where you see the future heading?


Neal: When someone asks me about the future, like there’s this kind of, sort of temptation to like give a prediction because often that’s directly what they’re asking for. And I don’t like to do that because it’s kind of armchair. Like reality is over here and I’m over there. And really, we’re all in this together. And what reality we want we have to decide on. And that’s one of the main messages of Shareable. It’s like there is this big trend unfolding. How do we want to shape it? What do we want it to do for us and for the world? Can it solve our biggest crises, inequality and climate change? And let’s see if we can guide all these new developments, sharing economy and beyond to create the kind of experiences we want to have in life and the kind of communities and world we want and also we need to have if we’re going to avoid some serious crisis in the future. Because we’re really headed for some – we already are feeling it. We already see in the news and in our own communities and with the weather that things are really changing quickly. And it’s time to get active and decide and shape the future that we all want and can live in.


Adam: Yeah. That’s great. And I think the key to it is successful small community groups and that’s where – if there’s an earthquake, if there’s a flood, it’s going to be your community that’s going to help you in the boat or help move the rubble. It’s not going to be a state-appointed entity that’s hundreds of miles away. It’s not going to be the EU if you’re in Europe. It’s going to be your neighbors. It’s going to be the people next to you rubbing shoulders.


Neal: Yeah, exactly. And in the other room, I’m preparing my emergency kit because we’re in the Bay Area, earthquakes and we may be overdue for one, right?


Adam: We are.


Neal: It’s been awhile. And I was urged to do this by my friend, Jeremiah Owyang over a Crowd Companies. But he added that like you should also get your neighbors prepared because that’s really what’s going to save you.


Adam: You got to have that distribution because your water supply might get cracks in it. I actually was one those paranoid preppers when I moved over to the US. And I’ve had my water and food. Actually, I shouldn’t be saying too much because I’m – anyway – I also have a tinfoil hat on at the moment. But I’ve got my water and food. And definitely even in here at the office in Near Me, we have our emergency water and food and everything. And everyone’s going oh yeah, we live on a fault line.


Neal: Absolutely, man.


Adam: Everybody asked me about the earthquakes and then of course recently –


Neal: Are you guys still in SoMa, Adam?


Adam: We are. Yeah, yeah.


Neal: SoMa’s built on landfill, man. It will just like –


Adam: Burn. The building we’re actually on, it’s old, rickety and there are no straight lines. So it’s gone through one in the past. It’s artistic though and we enjoy it.


Neal: Yeah, right.


Adam: That’s great advice. I think everybody everywhere – I mean, the German government just two days ago I think announced that everybody in Germany should be preparing at least 10 days worth of food and water supply for them. So this is a timely message. This just came out in mainstream news.


Neal: Well, I missed that. That’s really interesting.


Adam: So there’s something going on there, Italy’s earthquake but this is not to be – we want to end on this point. Go and be prepared and make sure you shake the hand of your neighbor and actually even know their names so that you can be there for them and they for you. What then as we finish, Neal, is a valuable piece of advice that you still lean on for your own strength?


Neal: A valuable piece of advice that I still lean for my own strength? Wow! Yeah. I mean, I’m a really big fan of Joseph Campbell. He said follow your bliss. So I really – I listen to the inner voices. I listen to my intuition. I listen to my heart and my head. The heart tells you what to do and your mind tells you how to do it and you shouldn’t get those reversed.


Adam: And that was Mr. Campbell?


Neal: Yeah, Joseph Campbell.


Adam: Joseph Campbell. I’m going to look him up. We’ll pop that quite up there. Well, Neal, thank you so much for your time. I so appreciate it. It’s been a great conversation. I’m sure everybody got a lot of value out of it. We’re going to be looking out for the book, Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons, something coming out in December. We’ll wrap it up now and then we’ll keep our conversation going briefly to talk about next steps with that book.


Neal: Okay. Great. Thank you, Adam, for having me on.

Adam: Thanks for joining us for The Crowd, the podcast that keeps you connected. Join us next episode for more knowledge sharing and insights into the marketplace economy.


Topics: The Crowd Podcast Interviews, Social Media, Marketing

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