You’ve probably never heard of Norwich. Located on the United Kingdom’s picturesque east coast, this small urban center held the title of England’s second city until the Industrial Revolution. Today, however, it’s home to just 200,000 people, and almost nobody outside Britain can point to it on a map. But that may not be the case for long.
According to the 2017 State of the Nation report, Norwich ranks among the country’s worst areas for social mobility. Meanwhile, reeling from Brexit uncertainty, the UK’s economy recently posted its worst quarterly GDP figures in five years. In the face of economic stagnation and poor local conditions, a group in Norwich has decided to take action in pursuit of a future based on hope, solutions, and global connections. At the beginning of 2018, city residents and local organizations came together and began campaigning for Norwich to be recognized as the UK’s leading city for sharing.
The Norwich Sharing City collective brings together municipal authorities, voluntary organizations, universities, and businesses to raise awareness of the sharing activities happening in Norwich, primarily through an events program. They’re also arranging public discussions intended to generate new ideas for citizen-led projects to help overcome issues such as food waste, plastic pollution, and traffic congestion on the local level. During Global Sharing Week (June 3–10), the collective will project a sharing animation onto Norwich Castle, a 900-year-old monument overlooking the city, and they’ll soon start crowdfunding monthly donations through the Open Collective platform.
“For me, the sharing city concept is an opportunity to look closely at how communities, towns, and cities work and how they might operate in the future. The next generation are starting to shape their culture and environment in ways that reflect how they feel about their society,” says Stefan Gurney, executive director of Norwich’s Business Improvement District, an organization working as part of the collective. “We see the sharing city as a real opportunity for people, communities, and businesses to work together in new and innovative ways.”
With globally renowned and well-funded cities such as London, Manchester, and Edinburgh within easy reach, it’s perhaps surprising that Norwich has chosen to pursue the sharing city title. Locals, however, are quick to list Norwich’s unique advantages. “We have a good mix of academic institutions and small businesses here, making the city a great place to pilot new things,” says Ali Clabburn, founder of the global car-sharing platform Liftshare, which has been based in Norwich for 20 years. “Small businesses can change and pick up new habits fast, and the same is true of the individuals working within them.”
According to Gurney, Norwich’s size also gives it a unique and attractive position. “It helps the local community engage and really feel like part of the city. That encourages independence and thinking differently, which is really the ethos of Norwich, in my eyes,” he explains.
Kate Cooper is co-founder of a social enterprise called We Wear the Trousers, which promotes sustainable fashion and new business models for the industry. Before launching her nonprofit in May, Cooper worked across Norwich’s sharing economy in a variety of roles, including launching a swap shop for clothes. She argues that Norwich has long held the credentials to be a sharing city, but current efforts are helping make connections.
“Sharing has always been what people in Norwich do naturally, but calling it the ‘sharing economy’ has given it a fresh feel and a kind of legitimacy. Helping citizens feel like they’re part of a global movement has really captured the city’s imagination. There’s such power in naming things,” Cooper says. “A couple of years ago, even though people were sharing, we didn’t quite have the language to talk about it. Now we have momentum, and we’re ready to lead the UK.”
With a strong and collaborative voluntary sector and a fast-growing tech and startup scene, Norwich is already an active sharing economy location. So, is the campaign to see Norwich recognized as the UK’s leading sharing city just a marketing scheme focused on showcasing activities the city is already engaged in? Or are new projects arriving, too?
“You need both fresh projects and awareness-raising. You need someone to be at the vanguard, to have thought of it first, to have the drive and energy to start making things happen,” Gurney explains. “The current sharing activities in Norwich provide the credentials to push for recognition, and this allows others to make the case for funding and support, knowing that the infrastructure and environment work. But you need fresh initiatives, too. The moment you’re stood still, you stagnate and fall behind.”