The Royal Geographical Society’s annual international conference was held from 1 to 4 September at the University of Exeter, UK. This year’s theme was “Geographies of the Anthropocene”, a relevant theme that, in the broader context of sustainability transitions, climate change responses and urban development, played to the strengths of the six TESS team members in attendance. Our TESS team contributed to interdisciplinary debates and shared some of their experiences working with community-based initiatives. The conference brought together over 1200 participants and a wide range of keynote speakers, plenary sessions as well as 300 individuals panels and sessions.
The first panel we attended was “Alternative experiments: spaces of learning and innovation at the grassroots”, where Annabel Pinker (The James Hutton Institute, UK) and Lucia Arguilles, presenting on behalf of her co-author Isabella Anguelovski (Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain), gave presentations. The session intended to begin a wider conversation about “experiment efforts” – interventions that explicitly seek to challenge and replace existing economic, social and other configurations through experimental means – such as model projects or living labs, and their role as examples for co-creation or local governance models.
Annabel presented her paper “Contingent Energies: The material politics of community-based renewable energy production in Aberdeenshire” discussing the efforts of an Aberdeenshire-based Community Development Trust to craft a hybrid renewable energy and social project on a farm acquired through the Scottish Land Fund. The paper used ethnographic methods to track the debates, aspirations and controversies that accrue around the proposals for the project, exploring how local people imagine, experience and affectively engage with socio-technological schemes of this kind. Annabel’s presentation highlighted the precarity of the organisation’s emergence and survival, exploring how the complexities of conflicting local interests, institutional dependencies, regulatory obstacles, the contingencies of funding arrangements, and the material intransigence of a saturated grid have become the grounds of an experimental practice that is as much about navigating effectively among layers of infrastructural and institutional relations as it is about fabricating a new kind of politics.
Lucia gave a talk on “Equity and inclusion in community-based initiatives of the post-carbon society: The environmental (in)justice of socio-environmental grassroots innovations” which dealt with the increased activity and sense of autonomy of community-based initiatives in the wake of the recent economic crisis and austerity and budget measures taken in various parts of Europe. Using data from the TESS project, she examined the experience of community-based initiatives in delivering wide-reaching benefits as the responsibility for their provision shifts from public administrators to local communities, and how and/or if they are able to address existing social and racial inequities or whether they tend to reproduce the patterns of exclusion present in public urban and environmental planning practices. By mapping and identifying the different (in)justice dimensions that converge within grassroots innovations, a proposition for a new framework to analyze environmental justice dimensions in existing societal innovation initiatives emerges from a reflection on the way that the traditional environmental justice framework of distribution, participation and recognition can be applied to this context.
In a three-part special session on the “Critical geographies of the sharing economy”, co-organizer Filippo Celata (University of Rome La Sapienza, Italy) introduced the session which was focused on the emergence of the sharing economy as a part of the restructuring of post-recession economies, the mitigation of climate change through sustainable (re-)use of resources and the experimentation with non-capitalistic processes through which ownership and markets have been replaced by access, collaborative consumption and communing. The experiences of many of the community-based initiatives involved with TESS fit well with the focus on sharing as embedded within interpersonal relationships, based on a variety of relational proximities needed to create links, trust and reciprocity among people who share. By problematizing the fact that community-based initiatives in the field often strive to survive and to up-scale, the three consecutive panels aimed to show how geographical theory can contribute to current debates about the sharing economy’s ups and downs.
Filippo gave the opening presentation reflecting on how ‘sharing’ is becoming a powerful dispositive for restructuring post-recession economies and for exploring more sustainable and collaborative economic practices. As an emerging process, the configuration of the sharing economy is not happening without controversies and unexplored complexities. While some sharing initiatives represent a chance for experimenting with non-market practices in which ownership is replaced by access and commoning, others seem to resemble techno-libertarian capitalist dystopias. Issues of territorial embeddedness, community and relational proximity, it is argued, are crucial for understanding how the conceptualization of ‘sharing’ varies among sharing initiatives, how each of these deal differently with connectivity, trust and reciprocity, the degree to which they are more or the less diverse, autonomous, alternative, who they include or exclude and what the consequences are. These dimensions are also crucial for understanding how sharing economies emerge, diversify, up-scale, relate to each other and evolve from being community-based to internet-based, for- or non-profit, political or utilitarian, etc. A research agenda is proposed to inquire in the evolving spatiality of sharing networks and its impact upon communities, places and industries.
Cary Yungmee Hendrickson (University of Rome La Sapienza, Italy / Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, Spain) and Venere Stefania Sanna (University of Roma La Sapienza, Italy) presented their inquiry as to what the ‘sharing’ in the sharing economy actually consists of, what it is about. The paper “Is it all about sharing? Communities in the shadow of the sharing economy” focused on communities that engage with sharing practices and sought to explore what the drivers of these communities are and what the trajectories of these initiatives look like. By problematizing the ubiquity of the concept of ‘community’, often overlooked and taken as a given, their research engaged with recent critiques that social bonds and relations have been replaced with a real, monetizable exchange between people, while the actual sharing is unreal. The research addresses the question of whether sharing is truly a form of communally shared resources or simply an unregulated, tech-enabled, supply-and-demand ‘alternative’ expression of entrepreneurial capitalism? Using insights from a variety of community-based initiatives that are currently active in the field of sustainability (such as urban gardens, car sharing programs, etc.) and involved in the TESS project, they argued that there is potential for the exploitation of communitarian values, while also an increasing pressure to upscale within a business rationale, where different forms of capital, such as free or casual labour, and various other aspects of life (e.g. sociality and leisure time) have been drawn into the sharing economy, resulting in the commodification of social relations between individuals.
Finally, Filka Sekulova (Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, Spain) presented her work “On the economics of sharing”. Filka’s research dealt with sharing as a collective use of physical resources and goods by actors outside the family circle, and her talked delved into the multiple environmental and social repercussions of sharing’s various formats ranging between the market and non-market domains. She presented a schematic representation of several key hypotheses and notions regarding the social and economic costs and benefits of sharing and showed how sharing is socially beneficial when monetary and time savings are positive, uncooperative behaviour is not too strong of an impediment, rebound effect is negligible and savings on natural resources and environmental degradations are generated. She also discussed how sharing can discourage rivalry and conspicuous consumption and have a positive effect on subjective well-being, and explore several social and economic factors with respect to their effect on the willingness to share, on the frequency of sharing a house, a car, electro-domestic appliances and tools using econometric analysis, drawing on two data sets, one from Barcelona (Spain) and another from Bulgaria. Her results showed that the sharing of cars, housing, tools and electro-domestic appliances is strongly influenced by time constraints and age, and less by the level of personal income. As predicted in the theoretical representation, sharing is more likely to take place in a context of trust, generosity and established social bonds. In the Bulgarian models, living in a town, as opposed to living in a village, and regularity of watching television bear a negative relation with sharing.