The Intellectual Origins of Sharing Economy

R. Buckminster FullerBuckminster “Bucky” Fuller (1895 – 1983) was a renowned and influential American inventor, designer, systems theorist, and futurist. Fuller saw himself as a practical philosopher and worked to solve global problems surrounding housing, transportation, energy, ecological destruction, and poverty. During his prolific career, in his different capacities he had been lecturing extensively and published about 25 books, stimulating and leaving a great impact especially on “geeks” of his time and their successors who have then engendered the Information Revolution from the 1970s onward.
In the 1960s, Fuller developed the World Game, a collaborative simulation game in which players attempt to solve world problems and overcome the uneven distribution of global resources. the-world-gameThe object of this anti-Malthusian and anti-militaristic game was in Fuller’s words, to “make the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone”. Over the 1960s-70s, the World Game and its ideas diffused via workshops, seminars, conferences, and educational and strategic papers. 
The 1971 publication “The World Game: Integrative Resource Utilization Planning Tool” (open-access), along with the game instructions and charts, also included  several Fuller’s talks about the essence of the game. One of them, given in the US Congress in 1969, caught my eye and it is certainly noteworthy.
First, Fuller constantly and sharply criticized the mainstream economics that disregarded the ecology and the consequences of economic growth on the environment. For instance:   

“Because 99 percent of humanity lives normally upon the dry land, the logic of its economic thinking lacks spontaneously some of the critical variables of the universe which, however, perforce of fundamentals had to be scientifically incorporated in all man’s effective coping with world-ocean and sky-ocean undertakings. (p.9)
There are a myriad of economic trends and other vital evolutionary events taking place today which are invisible to humanity only because they are too fast or too slow for man to apprehend and to comprehend them. We will be able to accelerate or decelerate such evolutionary events by electronic controls.” (p.10)

Secondly, Fuller presented a vision, embedded in the game, reflecting his concern about the world’s resources on the one hand, and individuals’ ability “to exercise complete actionale discretion” and their freedom of decision regarding their time on the other hand. Therefore, to confront the big businesses power to pursue immediate profits and direct individuals’ activities transforming them into obedient consumers,  Fuller called for the “reintegration of our present world inventory of systematically differentiated-out physical and metaphysical variables” (p.9). The following lines, which are expressed in the text and in the game in different ways, actually embody the intellectual origins of, as we call it today, Sharing Economy:

All the beds and bedrooms around the world are empty two-thirds of the time. All the automobiles are empty and motionless five-sixth’s of the day. There are two main causes of this vast uselessness. Firstly, we try to do everything at peak loads. Secondly, we try to “own” too many objects that we use too infrequently to justify “ownership”.
Assimilating the running of the world by computer we see quickly that we must find ways in which humans can be induced to employ all equipment all the time, thus smoothing out the peaks and valleys and eliminating the 66% empty time and servicing 100 percent instead of only 40 percent of humanity. (p. 19)
The idea that equipment is satisfactory only as permanent property is no longer valid. Many customs of humanity that have long defied political reform on strictly ethical or ideological premises are about to evaporate on a practical obsolescence basis. The computerized World Game may obviate vast manslaughter revolutions by disclosing in advance and thus accelerating the elimination of, “unwanted” or “unfair” customs and practices. Such obsolescence is unanticipated by the political revolutionaries; who, had they known the evolution was about to establish the desirable conditions by new invention and insights might have foregone vast and unnecessarily continuing mayhem.
Among other grand strategies for making the world work and taking care of everybody is the design science revolution of providing ever more effective tools and services with ever less, real resource investment per each unit of end performance.” (p. 20)

Now, back to the future.
Well, does the 2010s “Sharing Economy” of stomping giants like Uber, Airbnb, Deliveroo or WeWork reflect Fuller’s ideas? No. The rapidly spreading varieties of Platform Capitalism, digital labor and prosumption forced on the precariat hardly have something in common with Fuller’s purpose to “design science process for arriving at economic, technological and social insights pertinent to humanity’s future envolvement aboard our planet Earth” (p.2). But this amazing story reminds us about the power of ideas and imagination. The point is that once ideas are disseminated, the manner of their deployment depends on the winds of power in the field.

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