How to Focus on What is Actually Valuable in a Cashless Economy

How might faster transactions for goods and services foster deeper relationships with our peers?

“Hey James, glad you called. I can actually use your help. Can you come over Sunday afternoon to help me move Uncle Sanjay’s sofa? I’ll show you the spare room after that.”

Since moving to the Bay Area, I’ve been looking around for an affordable apartment. My sister Sandy recently connected me with her friend Javier, who has a spare room to share in some sort of a family-sharing community.

Instead of the typical get-to-know-you questions between potential new roommates, I now find myself standing in the doorway, gripping onto a heavy sofa with perspiration collecting beneath my shirt. Thank you, big sister.

“When prices surged, we started to share resources more. We used to rely on outside providers until we realized it’s cheaper to source from our neighbors,” Javier recalls as he adjusts his grip on underside of the sofa.

“Over here fellas. Put her down easy.” Uncle Sanjay motions for Javier and me to set the plush sofa in front of a coffee table. Standing back, the fuzzy sofa looks oddly comical in the spartan apartment. For a man who’s been living in the same building for the last 25 years, I was expecting to be surrounded by boxes of personal belongings.

I’ll later learn that Uncle Sanjay is actually not actually an uncle, but a retired on-demand driver who’s been adopted by Javier as an extended family member. Recently, Uncle Sanjay downsized his possessions in favor of using the collectively owned resources in the building. The sofa is an exception — a sentimental object that’s irreplaceable from his past.

“Hey, thanks for the help, new roomie!” Javier pats me on the back.

As Uncle Sanjay boils up a pot of chai, Javier tells me Uncle Sanjay likes to take advantage of these moments. By “these moments” he means the time it used to take to pay someone. Now that the building is one big cashless environment, transactions are instantaneous and automated, so we have more time to chit chat over some tea.

As we sit back on the sofa and share quips over chai, I learn that most of the tenants are lifers, living here since at least since 2021. People move within the building to different sized units, but no one ever seems to move out. Over the years, a localized peer economy has emerged. The neighbors have created a point system for sharing in-home products and services, and the points can be credited towards rent or be swapped for services they need.

“Most folks here opt for the swap. Take Leah next door for example.” Uncle Sanjay points to the wall between his new neighbor and us. “She never fancied cooking much, but Maria downstairs always loves to fix something up. For a good home-cooked meal, Leah’s been walking Maria’s poodle up the hill. This works out wonderfully, since Maria’s developed some joint pains.”

As Uncle Sanjay takes a sip of chai, I ask him something that’s been on my mind since I walked in. “If you don’t mind me asking, I noticed the rent here is a lot cheaper than the rest of the city. How does that work?” He smiles and explains that a few furnished units in the building are kept vacant for transient visitors. The market rates of the units help keep the rent low for the building’s long-term tenants.

“When payments became more instant and invisible, it made interactions between folks more personal. The experiences and conversation we’re having now are the real transactions people take away.” — Uncle Sanjay

Taking another sip from his mug, he adds that the localized sharing of services has also helped cut back on living costs. “People here don’t have to pay fees for multiple on-demand subscriptions. The services we provide to each other covers most of our needs. More family-oriented services like ours have popped up in the neighborhood recently. It’s a good thing. These services allow older folks like me to live a comfortable life in the city.”

As the hour winds down, Javier’s device buzzes, notifying us that Uncle Sanjay’s payment has been deposited into his account. We chat for a few more minutes before getting up to head out. As we step towards the door, I get distracted by the sound of a basketball dribbling from outside. Pausing by the window, I peer down to see what’s going on below.

“Believe it or not, people used to dump their old stuff in that alley.” Javier leans over to explain that the building facing us agreed to convert the alley into a shared garden a few years back. Now tenants from both sides use the garden for social activities throughout the week.

I guess Uncle Sanjay was right. It looks like the sharing is catching on in the neighborhood.

Contributors: Scott Paterson, Alastair Warren, Brett Brownell, Brian Pelsoh, Kate Kastenbaum, Matt Kerns, Vaughn Baker, Scott Shigeoka, Ivellisse Morales, Alana Murao, Scott Shigeoka, Martijn Van Den Broeck

This is part nine of Tomorrow in Progress from IDEO San Francisco. Tomorrow in Progress is a series that explores what the future of life in the Bay Area might be like in 10–15 years.

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