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Group Think: Models of Collaborative Consumption Catch On in Philly

Some people think of a city as an isolating place -- citizens operating as individual islands in the stream. Yes, it's possible to live that way in the urban jungle, but it's also possible to use density and energy to your advantage. As in many American cities, Philadelphia continues its remarkable revival, and creative people are finding innovative ways to capitalize on collective power, collective energy and collective resources to create new models of consumption. In a way, they are fostering values often associated with idealized small-town U.S.A -- trust, camaraderie, communication -- to build fresh frameworks in which to live and work.

Just yesterday, TechCrunch wrote about Lauren Anderson, the innovation director for Collaborative Lab who says the collaborative consumption movement can be as transformative as the industrial revolution.

Recent years have seen the high-profile rise of community supported agriculture (CSAs), car share programs such as local upstart PhillyCarShare and national leader Zipcar, and accommodation networks Airbnb and CouchSurfing. That growth has opened the door for other innovative forms of coordinated, collaborative consumption.

Made to Order
As member of a gym, you pay a monthly fee to use the equipment. NextFab Studio, located at theUniversity City Science Center, demonstrates that that model can offer access to more than just elliptical machines. In a bright, organized space that hums with activity (and heavy machinery),NextFab gives entrepreneurs, artists, inventors and students the opportunity to use top-shelf, high-tech, expensive equipment for an affordable monthly rate.

Founder Evan Malone began experimenting with 3-D printing in graduate school. It's an innovative technology that reproduces complete objects from computer files, including figures, sculpture and mechanical parts. The printers also tends to be very expensive and unwieldy. Already interested in democratizing this tool, Malone worked on an at-home version of the 3-D printer though [email protected], an open source project.

Then, inspired by Fab Lab, an MIT project aimed at making digital fabrication more available to communities outside academia, Malone got the idea to do something similar in Philadelphia. He went looking for a space. Eventually, he connected with the team at the Science Center, signing the lease in 2009 and opening in January 2010.

NextFab has a specific focus on fostering entrepreneurship. The membership model helps attract everyone from established companies to Etsy sellers. "I tried a few other mental models, and it just kept coming back to the gym model," says Malone. "And I didn't see any point in fighting that. It seemed like something tried and true that the customers would understand."

The suite of equipment was chosen for the same reasons. "I was trying to be more supportive of start-ups," he explains. "We have anything I could think of that someone might need to take a product idea and turn it into a working prototype that actually looked good. Plus, make packaging and advertising materials, and work on websites. It's basically your one-stop shop for starting up a product-based business."

Hitching a Ride
Sharing a big, lumbering, expensive piece of technology is also at the heart of Ridaroo, a start-up from two Drexel students looking to reinvigorate that bastion of idealism and radio station bickering -- the carpool.

Aksel Gungor and Andy Guy were inspired by an peculiar artifact: the ride board on Drexel's campus. As Gungor describes it: "Somewhere on campus there was this posterboard where students would basically come in and put up little post-it notes."

It seemed like a tool that could easily be transported to the internet. The need was especially dire at Drexel where the school's co-op program creates scores of student commuters -- as part of the curriculum, four or five thousand students a semester work in lieu of class.

"At the time, I was interning and taking the bus everyday," recalls Gungor. "I thought there might be an opportunity to get a ride from a classmate. Not only would it be cheaper, but I'd meet some classmates."

A year-and-a-half later, Ridaroo works with universities, corporations and government agencies to enable and encourage carpooling. By using existing networks of peers, they remove some of the menace. "We wanted to take the creepiness out of carpooling," says Gungor with a laugh. "20 percent of people used to carpool, and now its down to eight or nine percent. With private systems, at least it's a classmate or a coworker."

They take that effort to the next level with commuter profiles. "You can learn a little more about them before getting in the car or even sending a carpool invitation," adds Gungor. "If it's a company, you can see their department and how long they've been with the company -- even what kind of music they listen to in the morning." Ridaroo also integrates with Facebook, allowing users to see if they have "mutual friends."

There are tremendous upsides to a program like this in terms of reducing congestion, emissions and parking issues while also fostering community and building bonds between peers. Ridaroo is one example of how using the internet can actually help recapture some of the things that technology has rendered obsolete. The message board in the middle of campus can be reborn and updated for the smartphone age.

"We have the online piece, and then there's the in-person follow-up," says Gungor. "We didn't invent carpooling, we're merely a tool."

Group Think
Building connections is also an explicit goal of IndyHall, a coworking space in Old City. It aims to bring together Philadelphia's army of freelancers and independent workers under one roof to share ideas, workspace and a coffee maker.

Before Indyhall, co-founder Alex Hillman ran a tiny web design firm. "I had a network of trusted, talented friends and we took turns being the lead on the project," explains Hillman. "It was sort of like Voltron. We'd come together based on the needs of the project and build the ideal team. The problem was trying to grow that model. It was really hard to find people that aligned with me in terms of approach and skill set. They weren't visible."

For a while, he tried to move to San Francisco, but then decided that he needed to look closer at his own backyard. "I found that not only were they here," he says, "they were right below the surface. A lot of them were also struggling and looking for people."

Drinks and casual coworking sessions at coffee shops eventually led to the development of a sustainable business model for a permanent coworking space. in its fourth year, IndyHall is 100 percent member supported and profitable. And, according to Hillman, the space is also an economic boon for members: After a few months, many report increased productivity that more than covers their dues.

Indyhall has also provided Hillman with a fresh sense of belonging in his longtime home. "There is no identity within citizenship for me," he explains. "The old way was to pick up trash, vote, pay your taxes. I think there's a level of involvement that people crave, that's why things like Indyhall work."

Those efforts radiate out into the larger community. "[Members] want to be good citizens of Indyhall," says Hillman. "The sneak attack is that Indyhall is a good citizen of Philadelphia because we're helping bring people together, helping new businesses form and helping produce things. By being a good citizen of Indyhall they're being a good citizen of Philadelphia."

Hillman hopes to expand the concepts that have been so successful at Indyhall beyond the workplace. They're working with local green design innovators Postgreen on K'House, a sustainable cohousing effort in South Kensington.

Cruise Control
One of the most high-profile examples of collaborative consumption is bike sharing. Since the launch of Velib in Paris in 2007, over 400 programs have started up globally. The United States still lags behind, but CityRyde, a local company, has become a leader in bike share software and development.

Founders and Jason Meinzer and Timothy Erickson were among those inspired by Velib. "For me, it was seeing how practical it was," says Meinzer, a Drexel graduate. "Living out in West Philly, every time I went into Center City, I had to deal with an above-ground bus that was unreliable or the subway. Half the time I would sit down there for 20 minutes and end up pulling my hair out, thinking, 'I should have just walked.' I couldn't have a bike -- I had no place to store it. I just thought this would be perfect."

Cityryde started out as a bike share consulting business before the founders tapped into their IT backgrounds and started designing software. They are hoping to help cities and universities monetize the carbon savings that result from bike-share programs.

Unfortunately, Philadelphia is still dragging its heels when it comes bike sharing. Most city leaders agree that it's a powerful idea, but funding remains an issue. Meinzer hopes that as the momentum grows globally, launching a local program will become a no-brainer -- especially in a city with such a vibrant tourism economy and pervasive bike culture.

"There's a real shift these days towards collaborative sharing," says Meinzer. "It's one of the biggest crazes these days, with start-ups and peer sharing websites. It's really cool to see. It's contagious. If you share your bike, maybe, eventually you'll share your car."

Share, Share Alike
In the end, all these ideas comes back to democratization. It can be cheaper and more convenient to participate in a communal program than to have your own personal car, bike, machine or office. Urban spaces are the ideal incubator for these models -- with space at a premium and a population rife with innovative, savvy, open-minded consumers, it feels like this is only the beginning.

LEE STABERT is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. Send feedback here.


Evan Malone at NextFab Studio

Seth Kranzler in the NextFab welding studio

Studio members benefit from being able to use large expensive machines and equipment that would normally be cost prohibitive

Dan Howard at NextFab Studio

Work in Progress by Dan Howard made from laser cut Masonite

Sharif Pendleton in the laser cutting studio

Sharif's work finished and in packaging, currently available in the Philadelphia Art Museum and HERE

Laser cut X for TedX

Corkscrew produced by a 3D scanner and 3D printer in the NextFab Studios

Evan Malone

All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO

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