What kind of resources should be shared?

Living in a cohousing project, and being one of the directors of the next door workspace co-op (Green Elephant), I have more than the average interest in what is best shared. Yet there seems to be little guidance I can find on what to share, and what not to share.

It’s easy to go astray either way. If you don’t share anything, what’s the point? That’s how our society is set to keep us down and to keep the profits accumulating to the business elite. The more we share, the less we buy – that can’t be good news for those who make profits from selling us stuff. Then there’s the economics and the environment. If we share nothing, we carry on pumping more and more unsustainable CO2 into the atmosphere. Global resources are degraded faster than they can be renewed. It is neither sustainable nor resilient.

On the other hand, one of the reasons co-housing has developed in practice is to hold off from the kind of communal living in which extreme sharing overrides boundaries. Indeed, I have seen (though never participated in) communes where any kind of exclusivity is frowned on, even including family relationships. But, does this give the kind of warm stability and security needed in a good environment for raising children? I would say, extreme sharing definitely does not.

At a more political level, the aspect I grasp of the communism/capitalism ideological conflict is that people care more about their “own” things, they look after them better, they take more pride in them, and it is plausible that the more care and pride devoted to any enterprise, the more successful it is.

The level at which I now see myself as operating lies between the individualised household and society at large. In a group of people who know each other, and have sufficient trust, whether at work or at home, there is potential for sharing things. So how much sharing is good?

These kind of questions were coming up the other day about some of the resources at Halton Mill where Green Elephant operates. We directors are carefully considering ways forward, but in the meanwhile I’d like to put forward a completely personal point of view that is not the point of view of the Green Elephant directors collectively.

We currently manage a fair amount of office and workshop space. Assuming there is some elasticity in the demand for space, raising the prices would lead to some people moving out because they could not afford it, and others might squeeze in tighter to give more room for others.

But as well as plain space, there are other more specialised resources. We already have a shared printer, that has been running very well for over a year. Some things we haven’t had up to now, but are or will be working on. The example closest to my personal interest is a secure space for Internet servers. Other examples may come up for discussion later.

To digress a little, many of us have been working hard as volunteers to get B4RN here — “hyperfast” Broadband for the Rural North — and when it comes (some time in 2015) we will have an enviable setup, with community interest carbon-free electricity (from Halton Lune Hydro) able to power servers through a community-interest Internet provider, in space managed by our grass roots Green Elephant co-op. No elites in sight here!

To stand by the co-operative principles, my personally preferred solution for a scarce resource would be to manage it co-operatively. That management co-op would be open to any Green Elephant member business or individual who wished to use the scarce resource as part or the whole of their business offering.

There’s an important point here that is worth stressing. Each business, or indeed individual, would still run their own business, and the co-op, whose members are those individuals or businesses, would manage the sharing of the relevant facilities. It would make sense for the basic hard-to-move or bespoke fixtures to belong to Green Elephant, but things that are easily removable and changeable would belong either to the management co-op or the individual businesses, according to what worked for the people involved.

Surely, one of the reasons for co-operative structures is that people as a whole should be better off as a result. If co-operation is done well, better decisions can be made with more people involved – a little like the principle that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”, which Eric Raymond dubbed “Linus’s Law”. Not only that, but also that people feel more involved, and more likely to give the enterprise care as if it were “their own”.

The pattern is pretty clear to me.

For plentiful business resources, let people have their own, without the restrictions of having to consult and agree with others. For scarce, valued resources, set up a co-op to manage a related set of resources equitably as well as prudently, in a way that maximises the use of the resource through sharing, and at the same time clearly places the responsibility of management, maintenance, legal compliance, etc. to exactly those users, without needing to involve other people who have less interest. Then, let every co-op reflect carefully on those co-operative principles, and co-operate with the other co-operatives.

In a non-business context, where there are no legal requirements to fulfill, there is less need to incorporate. This is what we do at Lancaster Cohousing, where there are different service teams for each separate area of collective responsibility, including all those with the interest and time to be positively involved.

In both cases, the first question to be asked is, is this resource valuable, scarce or precious enough to prompt sharing? The more valued and scarce a resource is, the more important it is to share the ownership, control and responsibility in the spirit of co-operation. The “magic” will be to arrange what is shared, and the governance structures, so that people are engaged in roles and tasks they care about, or have a natural interest in.

Does that make good sense as a way of deciding what to share?