Seoul: Can a 'sharing culture' make cities more sustainable?

Mike Childs, Project Leader for the Big Ideas Change the World Project 

There are many challenges and opportunities facing cities in the 21st century. And they are big. But from them flow opportunities, as the city of Seoul in South Korea has spotted.

Challenges ahead

Increased urbanisation, ageing populations and in some locations shrinking cities are just some of the challenges facing cities, which Friends of the Earth has been exploring as part of our new Big Ideas Change the World project. There are also opportunities through technological developments such as 3D printing, robotics, and the continued expansion of the digital economy. A global power shift from western countries to the emerging economies, accompanied by deeper globalisation is another factor.  And there are environmental stresses such as resource shortages, extreme weather, and the increasing costs of food and fuel. Plus increasing public disengagement from politics.

Hardly small challenges!

Many city authorities have seen what’s coming, signing up to the Aalborg Commitments which provide a great way forward. But there is, I believe, a strategic opportunity missing from the commitments – as spotted by Seoul – the development of a sharing economy. 


Seoul becomes a Sharing City

As one of the global mega-cities Seoul is facing extraordinary pressures. How is it going to house its population? How can it deal with transport pollution and congestion? How can it cut is resource use and reduce its waste? How can it address inequalities and build cohesive communities?

One solution could be in becoming a Sharing City. Seoul has started investing in supporting, encouraging and developing enterprises that deliver sharing. It is reviewing rules and regulations that inhibit or prevent citizens from sharing; and it is delivering its own sharing initiatives.


What is a ‘sharing economy?’

Sharing is not new. Parks and green spaces in cities have always existed as shared spaces. Libraries share books. Public transport is a shared method for getting around. But the advent of digital communications facilitates sharing in a way never seen before.

The excellent website showcases many case-studies of sharing initiatives. Car-sharing, bike-sharing, shared housing, shared jobs, shared offices, tool sharing, shared ownership of energy generation, local currencies, shared green space for relaxation or growing food, even shared dogs!

And new technologies, such as 3D printing, create opportunities for shared manufacturing space.


What difference could sharing make?

Seoul has spotted the strategic benefits that could flow from the development of a Sharing City.

Sharing, for example, leads to increased resource efficiency and greater resilience to the increasing costs of resources. It creates active communities and social cohesion, both critical to engaging people in society and politics. It also helps provide support for the weakest in society. And it enables the poorest in society to access services and opportunities that would otherwise be closed to them, thereby reducing inequalities.

Sharing is also a way of grabbing hold of technological developments and using them for the common good. It builds a community of people who can collaborate in further developing and shaping them. It creates a culture of innovation. Sharing can also help keep economies local, making them more resilient to global change. It reduces the disproportionate power that some corporations have over the welfare of cities.


What should European cities do?

Sharing is the future, according to Professor Julian Agyeman from Tufts University. But a sharing economy won’t simply emerge by magic.

As Seoul shows, cities need to encourage and nurture sharing. They need to develop a strategic vision and implement it. They need to remove the barriers that could impede the development of sharing. They need to invest in it.

But a sharing economy cannot be imposed upon a city. Participation in developing, enacting and owning the plan is as obvious as it is critical. And cities themselves need significant autonomy from national governments to develop this agenda.



The world is changing fast. As the Aalborg Commitments make clear, business as usual isn’t an option.

From the challenges ahead we can also see many opportunities. Building a sharing economy is a strategic response to these challenges, turning them around and using them as an opportunity to build a socially cohesive and environmentally sustainable future.

Sharing is the future!


With thanks to Mike Childs, Project Leader for the Big Ideas project, and Helen Burley, Media and Communications 

image Seoul (top) © Sinan Yüzakli

image Seoul becomes a Sharing City © Shareable Cities

image What is a 'sharing economy?' © Vikseskogen

image What difference could sharing make © Infinity K

image Professor Julian Agyeman © Tufts