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This UK City Wants to Win with the Sharing Economy

Could a collaborative approach to urban living put Norwich on the global map?

Norwich’s 900-year-old castle overlooks the city. Photo: Visit Norwich

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.

Norwich hopes to be recognized as the UK’s leading sharing city. Photo: Norwich BID

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.”

Car sharing can help reduce congestion and improve air quality. Photo: Liftshare

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.”

Ofo is one of many sharing platforms operating in Norwich. Photo: Norwich Sharing City Collective

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.”

Norwich aims to tell a compelling story about its commitment to sharing and garner national and international attention as a modern, free-thinking, and vibrant city. The collective also hopes to create a stronger sense of community and encourage peer-to-peer projects that can improve social mobility, as well as help local businesses look to the future: at uses of technology, the changing high street, and new ways of doing business. According to Clabburn, the social benefits of sharing are considerable as well.

“Sharing can pretty much solve our city’s transport crisis, given the right resources. It could wipe out congestion, improve air quality, and give access to work or services for everyone who needs this,” he explains. “Apply that to health, skills, food, or accommodation, and the potential is enormous. All it takes is a few people being brave and pushing for the potential they see.”

But as with any ambitious campaign that sets out to challenge the status quo, Norwich has hurdles to overcome if it is to succeed.

“The biggest obstacle will always be the knowledge and understanding,” Gurney says. “When you’re the first people pushing at the door to drive change, you’ll always come up against inertia and people who believe something like the sharing city will never work in Norwich.”

The collective hopes to tackle the issue of food waste through its work. Photo: Norwich Sharing City Collective

That sort of negativity certainly has the potential to slow things down. In the UK, budgets and campaigns are often concentrated at the national level, with smaller cities left with a “trickle down” from London and a lack of urban autonomy. “For some in Norwich, there is a tendency to just accept what others deliver or do what they tell us,” Gurney says. “But we must support those with the motivation and ideas to make our city better. People are the key asset in sharing cities. They have to buy into it.”

Bureaucracy, too, could quickly dampen the passion of Norwich’s proactive citizens. This is especially true of millennials, who are both the driving force behind the Norwich Sharing City collective and the most likely to be put off if traditional forces stand in the way of the future they envision. “If people get onboard and then stop things from happening, they shouldn’t be on the bus in the first place,” Clabburn says. “Other UK cities are already taking note of what we’re doing. We want to be a world leader, and that means moving fast.”

The “sharing cities” concept has huge power in terms of uplifting cities that have not had the opportunity to share their knowledge and culture in the past. For decades, the phrase “Do Different” has been the local motto in Norwich, encapsulating a citywide ethos of creative and independent thinking. While the Norwich Sharing City collective is at the beginning of its campaign, it might not be long until more people around the world have heard of Norwich and England’s second city reclaims its title.

This story is part of the series “Building a City,” examining the opportunities and challenges of the sharing economy in different cities. Read the previous installment:

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