The sharing economy is experiencing explosive growth around the world and is forcing us to rethink many aspects of our lives. In less than six years, a company has grown to offer more rooms than Hilton Hotels, is valued at more than all but the three largest hotel chains, and yet owns no inventory: Airbnb.

Meanwhile, another company is transporting more people across Europe than Eurostar, yet doing so at 1/100th the cost of capital by filling spare seats in cars: BlaBlaCar. And perhaps it comes as no surprise that the average North American household has more than $3,000 of unused stuff lying around at any point in time. In the aggregate, this means hundreds of billions of dollars of value simply left on the table.

The sharing economy is based on “access over ownership” and asset utilization. At a basic level, sharing (rather than owning) is more economically efficient, more environmentally sustainable, and more social. We’re discovering new ways to earn income, save money, use fewer natural resources, and build relationships.

What sharing can do for cities

Of course, the sharing economy is not new. Not only have we been sharing throughout history, but new sharing start-ups, platforms and investment rounds are in the news daily.

However, amidst all the private sector activity, there is something very exciting taking place elsewhere. We’re beginning to rethink how the sharing economy may transform cities: urban planning, civic engagement and innovation. How might the sharing economy provide “invisible infrastructure” for cities to thrive?

First, think about all of the challenges that cities today face: growing population, climate change, shrinking budgets, congestion. It’s easy to get disheartened. At the same time, think about all of the assets in a city, and think about the role of local leaders and policy makers.

Cities have their own real estate, buildings, transport fleets, infrastructure and much more. Many of these assets could themselves be shared, if the city simply chose to do so.

In addition, cities regulate other operators in the city and other activities and things that are shareable. They create the enabling environment for the broader ‘sharing ecosystem’ to thrive.

Many cities around the world are trying to figure out “what to do” about the sharing economy. It helps boost local economic development, but what about vested interests? It promotes sustainable consumption and brings new job opportunities, but how do we regulate it?

In my opinion, the city can be the single largest beneficiary of the sharing economy. The sharing economy can help a city reach its goals: around sustainability, local investment, efficiency and community. The city does not have to be reactive, and policy makers aren’t the enemy. The city can be a proactive ally.

Some cities, such as Seoul and Amsterdam, are figuring this out. They are leaning in and figuring out how to support the sharing economy. Meanwhile, other cities are leaning back or resisting, building barriers to participate, or – perhaps most concerning – assuming that regulations are static. We have seen the challenges this presents in places like New York City and Barcelona.

Four key steps for cities

The sharing economy is neither a panacea nor a silver bullet. However, it is an extremely useful, effective tool by which to improve life in cities. It is a new lens by which we can unlock value in assets all around us. So the better thing to do – for city leaders, resilient communities and wellbeing – is to lean in.

If I were in charge of a city, here is the simple working agenda I would use to learn about – and benefit from – the sharing economy:

  1. First, build awareness within government about the sharing economy. Sadly, most governments are still unaware. As a result, there can be friction and inefficiency with business – and the city loses out on direct benefits.
  2. Second, figure out what assets the city owns and might be able to share. Few cities have inventories of what they own. Imagine if you knew what you owned – and then could share, either to earn revenue or simply for public benefit. Seoul recently made hundreds of public spaces – from conference rooms to galleries – available for residents to use for creative and productive purposes. In less than a year, more than 17,000 groups used these spaces, unlocking tremendous social capital in the process.
  3. Third, take a hard look at policies. Figure out which regulations are in the way. This isn’t easy, but it’s where the real opportunity is. The sharing economy isn’t about unregulated activities; rather, it’s about developing appropriate regulations that maximize the (economic, environmental and social) benefits while balancing public needs.
  4. Fourth and really important: get involved. Start by joining a sharing platform and giving it a try. Start simple, like using a carsharing or ridesharing app one day. Then, go out and meet community members. Talk to people who use Airbnb, either as a traveler or a host. Meet people who use LiquidSpace for work meetings, EatWith for social meals, or TaskRabbit for errands. Ask them about their experiences, their results, and what’s missing. See how you feel when you do this: what changes, and what opens up?

It’s time to take sharing in cities to the next level. It’s time for what I call a “civic trifecta”: better economics, better environment, and better for community. When we can look at all assets in a city from a shared perspective, our entire view of the city and sustainable urban growth improves.

Author: April Rinne is a sharing economy and Shareable Cities expert. She  is also a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Image: Giant concrete supertree structures and the Supertree Aerial Walkway are silhouetted at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore April 30, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Chong