A popular CB flat in Paris, presented as a real-time digital rendering using their immersive app

The Future for Rent

We’ve traded music collections for streaming media and external hard drives for cloud storage services. In the future, will we own things or just subscribe to them?

Recently Lakshmi had become an accidental owner. When her father passed away, he left her his house in Santa Cruz. But her life had no room for ownership, especially not homeownership. It meant maintenance, taxes, and limits. Her life was in San Francisco — or London, Mumbai, and sometimes Tokyo — where Lakshmi worked for CB, the largest living space company.

Living Spaces were homes-as-a-service. When you entered a new Living Space appliances were already personalized to your presets, dinner deliveries re-routed to your new location, and housekeeping subscriptions kept the place tidy. These living spaces had no cleaning supply closets or cabinets for kitchenware. Those were wasteful remnants of a time before the rental-service economy. Today you only owned if you could not afford rental services. As CB’s founder liked to say, “Our world is crippled by underutilization. With living spaces you can access everything without wasting anything. Invest in an experience, instead.” That inspired Lakshmi to join CB as a growth hacker.

She had read a case study about an old phone company that dominated the market and gained new users by buying out competitors’ contracts. It kept users loyal by constantly upgrading their phones. Minimize switching costs and always give the user something new - CB could do that. CB could buy out homes and sell the owners living spaces. People could even pay for lifetime membership through a 30-year, fixed-rate plan. Retirement with a CB Living Space meant a life of convenience and freedom. Lakshmi proceeded to launch CB’s biggest growth campaign.

Lakshmi’s success put her and her family in the fortuitous position of not having to own anything. They lived the CB dream. They spent holidays in an Alamo Square Victorian with a fireplace. On weekdays they stayed in a Noe Valley space with a large study and upgraded video walls. The children walked to school. They had more choice, more access, and less overhead in every part of their lives. Recently they upgraded to weekly refreshes on their clothing subscription. The premium-tier membership ensured access to the newest and trendiest living spaces.

Back in Santa Cruz she felt almost embarrassed by her father’s ownership footprint: a three bedroom home for just one person seemed so, well, wasteful. For a man who rarely cooked, the kitchen was full of appliances. In his closet hung an outdated suit, worn just once to Lakshmi’s wedding. Buy-to-dispose goods, made by mass production, populated each room. She felt claustrophobic and went outside for air.

In 1994, Peter Menzel photographed the homes, possessions, and members of 30 families around the world. Each of these families represented a statistically average household for that country. Above one such home in the United States is pictured.

Just then, an elderly man walked by. “Oh, you must be the daughter. Your father always talked about you.” He smiled kindly, “I’m Hades. I live next door. Every day your father came outside right about now to enjoy a cup of tea.” She smiled back, but it felt invasive that this neighbor knew so much about her father. Lakshmi excused herself and walked back inside.

On the stove she found her father’s teapot. As a child, he taught her about phase changes as steam rose out of the boiling kettle. Later, as a teenager, the two of them would stay up late sipping tea and talking about his genetics research or her app ideas. Just last year, over tea once again, she tried to convince him to move into a Living Space, but he refused, saying he enjoyed his possessions too much. That teapot brought back such vivid memories.

A soft buzz on her phone brought her back to the present. An email with a below-market offer for her father’s home had arrived. She knew she would accept it so she could get back to her life. Before leaving, however, she added tea bags to her recurring dinner delivery order. But she included a note that a teapot would not be necessary. She would provide that herself.

Contributors: Bansi Shah, Scott Paterson, Alastair Warren

This is part ten 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.

Editor’s note: The images used in this piece are worth a brief discussion of its own. Today, much of IKEA’s catalog imagery is computer generated. Tomorrow, as our possessions continue to be digitally represented so too might our acquisition of them become ephemeral. To visually support Bansi’s story, the images demonstrate this transformation. First, the top image is a collage. The background of the collage is by Benoit Dereau created in 2015 using a real-time gaming engine, Unreal Engine 4. Benoit’s image, which represents today’s capabilities, was then slightly modified and augmented to project the experience forward into the near future. The second image, representing the past, is from a well-known series of photographs from 1994.
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