Can Better Design Make The Sharing Economy Work For Vacuums And Drills?

Product-sharing ventures failed while companies like Airbnb took off. A new conceptual design project figured out why, and how to get people interested in swapping household items with their neighbors again.

When the startup Neighborrow launched in 2006, the idea seemed to resonate: If you only use a drill once a year or a stand mixer every six months, why not share one with neighbors rather than owning it? Over the next few years, several other goods-sharing platforms followed, all with the laudable goal of helping reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing products that people rarely used.


Almost all of the startups failed. “It turned out that people didn’t really want to borrow anything,” Neighborrow co-founder Adam Berk later said in an interview with the Kauffman Foundation. “They didn’t mind buying things and just letting them sit unused.”

Still, at the same time, car-sharing and bike-sharing companies grew. Airbnb, founded in 2008 to some similar skepticism–if people didn’t really want to share a drill, why would they share their home?–was valued at $30 billion by 2016. Why did these ventures succeed where others like Neighborrow failed?

In a new conceptual project, designers at the industrial design and consulting firm Pensa asked themselves that very question–and looked at what it might take to make sharing smaller items succeed. In developing this theoretical product-sharing network, Pensa hopes to get other agencies and designers on board in re-imagining this sector of the sharing economy.

“What we really saw of the successes in product sharing seemed to have very little to do with actual sharing and much more to do with convenience,” Mark Prommel, partner and design director at Pensa, tells Co.Exist. In other words, people aren’t motivated to share something primarily out of altruism, but because it’s easier.

“It’s a better experience to use CitiBike, in many ways, than owning your own bike in New York City, because they are where you need them,” Prommel says. “Bikes are bulky and hard to store, bikes are expensive, they get stolen. So if all those things go away, and I can have this where I need it, when I need it, then it makes sense.”

Attempts at goods sharing just weren’t as convenient as walking up to a Zipcar or a bike-share bike. “The problem with sharing is that there are people involved,” Prommel says. “As soon as you start getting into other people’s emotional needs, their schedules, someone not wanting to be inconvenienced, you need to be willing to take a big leap, and have a really strong desire to want to share something, in order to overcome those barriers and turn this into a viable thing.”


The designers took inspiration from the example of trying to give something away on Craigslist. While it seems like it should be easy–and it’s definitely easier than loaning out something that you need back–it’s an exercise in patience, as you try to find a time to meet, field questions about whether something can fit in someone’s car, and deal with rescheduling and cancellation.

The key to making product sharing work, the designers at Pensa believe, is adding a little bit of infrastructure. In their concept, a “Share Shed” acts as a centralized place to check products in and out with an app, circumventing the problem of trying to meet with an actual person, and ensuring that products are close enough that it isn’t a hassle to pick them up. In a large apartment building, a locked space could double as extra storage for people tired of trying to cram their vacuum in a tiny closet. The shed might also be in front of a store, or, in a suburban area, on a corner of someone’s lawn.

As self-driving cars become standard, the shed might also become mobile, bringing you an item on command. “If my lawnmower showed up at my house at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning and got picked up at 9:45 and that was the last I had to deal with it or look at it, that might be nice,” Prommel says.

Through this conceptual work, the designers are hoping to revive the conversation about sharing economy platforms. “We’ve seen the successes of what the alternatives to owning large, expensive products can be, mostly in the transportation realm, and we’ve seen why it works,” Prommel says. “Those same notions do translate to a lot of products. It isn’t necessarily that the idea is wrong–we just think that the model for and the way we were thinking about potentially sharing these products in the past may have been a little bit off.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.