May 11, 2011| 0

Community, Sharing, and “Returning on Time” for the Love of a Stranger

There’s something special about small-town communities. Everybody knows your name; everybody knows your business. Although such an intrusion of “personal space” carries negative influences such as gossip, it also is profoundly supportive as the community surrounds those in trouble, shares items as needs arise, and works together for the common good.

Interestingly, residing near a metropolitan center such as Seattle limits this kind of community. As a population “advances”, the necessity of human relationship retreats. Nothing symbolizes this turn of events better than an urban apartment, a place my wife and I call “home”.

Characterized by tenants who often view their living situation in temporary terms, an apartment exists, first and foremost, as a place to situate a bed and, secondly, as a storage unit for other collectibles. A neighbor’s perceived value resides in his or her threat of personal annoyance or inconvenience. A noisy neighbor is disliked; a quiet neighbor is out of mind, out of sight, and to be enjoyed. What is certain is that a neighbor should be trusted only after plenty of time and interaction. While small-town communities are defined by the principles of sharing and mutual relationship, urban centers often create lone wolves, even when close proximity invites otherwise. Density breeds distrust.

Amongst the deteriorating mores of urban society, a new business model has arisen – one that operates on the sense of sharing and community. Zipcar (which just went public and is enjoying market success) is a good example.

Founded in 2000, the company provides automobiles through a membership-based car sharing service. Located in urban areas throughout the United States and the UK, Zipcar targets highly populated areas where residents typically don’t need an everyday auto. Since Zipcar pays for gas, insurance, maintenance, and parking, members save a notable amount of money in comparison with owning a car. In fact, members are only financially responsible for the hours they have reserved.

Obviously, the idea behind car sharing contains both personal and communal motivations. At the personal level, such a service is cheaper than owning an automobile if the customer lives, works, and plays within the vicinity of his or her residence. Likewise, car sharing carries communal motivations because it reminds us of the concept of sharing and using items only when necessary, not in excess.

In fact, Zipcar maintains a steep fee for returning a car late because the next person potentially needs the car immediately. In this way Zipcar inserts the virtue of mutual respect and extols community, as the penalty reminds customers that other people have needs as well. You are not the center of the universe; someone else has an important appointment to keep or an errand to run.

Hearing Zipcar’s story encourages me to imagine how this community-based business model could work in other areas of the marketplace. Of course, Netflix and Gamefly have successfully operated under this rental model, but could this way of doing business succeed in larger ways? Are there opportunities to share computers, cell phones, mp3s, and other products and services? More importantly, could the Zipcar model contribute to a strengthening of community in our urban core? Could it create a culture that reminds us of the value of human relationship? Could it help us think differently about our neighbor down the hall or the familiar strangers we pass by each day? What do you think?

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Donovan Richards earned an M.A. in Business and Applied Theology from SPU and works as a consulting analyst for See Seven. You can read more of his work on Donovan's blog.

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