From Ownership to Membership

At times, it seems like owing things is what we are hard-wired to do. Through a mixture of hard work and chance, we acquire things and as a result can use them as and when we like, loan them to a friend, or dispose of them when we’re through. The opposing instinct is sharing, when we work out a way to use things either when others are not or to use them cooperatively when they are. This is not a new concept: for centuries, many have been sharing access to parks rather than each owning a backyard and as a result gaining access to larger spaces and the community using parks, at the cost of complete control and privacy.

There’s a lot of sharing going on now and a variety of explanations. The internet* has enabled sharing information and connecting with people on a previously unthinkable scale. The great recession has brought back the ethic of “doing more with less” as has broad interest environmental sustainability. As with the park example, dense cities are also predisposed to sharing since there simply isn’t enough to go around and the list of these cities is growing.

Whatever the reason, the rise of sharing and the ease of connecting and coordinating with others through technology has enabled a shift from ownership to membership, a shift from everyone owning and controlling their own products, services, and spaces to new kinds of membership structures in which we can share access to these things, generally enabled through a new technology or service which connects us to what we need and to each other. Zipcar is the classic example of this: why own a car when you can use the car when you need to and not worry about parking, gas, insurance, and oh yeah, monthly payments.

There are a variety of examples of this shift from ownership to membership:

  • Bike Share Programs like Minneapolis’s NiceRide in which you can pick up a bike at any station and return it at any other in the network
  • Coworking sites like the Hive at 55 in New York City that enable individuals to work alone together or to collaborate as in the
  • Club spaces like SoHo House and the Hospital Club that mix social and work activities, granting access to amenities and the network of members
  • 826 Valencia sites such as the Pirate Supply Store or the Superhero Supply store that are part office, part writing/tutoring center, and part retail (originally for effect, but in the end, essential)
  • Ing Cafés that mix social activities and meeting, with education through seminars and (online) banking
  • Apple stores that provide access to space and technology for presentations/seminars and technology support on a shared basis that you’d have otherwise had to own – places where you “come to shop [and] return to learn”

Membership models enable new kinds of Experiences that blend otherwise incompatible uses and grant access to new products, services, and spaces, like working side-by-side someone who happens to have the exact skills you need. Community is fostered and supported as members are linked in a network, and through it they gain access to new people, places, and interactions; for instance, meeting someone who’s also into wearing eyepatches for recreation. Shared ownership through membership also enables more intense use of assets and for members to access the use of things rather than owning them. This has clear environmental Sustainability benefits, such as occupying only as much space as you need, rather than a workplace that’s only used 30% of the 9 to 5 day, as most are.

One clear implication of this shift (there are many) is that designers will be spending more time designing services rather than things such as devices and spaces. This will mean understanding the touchpoints where people interact with information, products, environments, staff, and each other, and then designing those interactions in order to ensure needs are met, business goals are reached, and the network of users is supported. This shift from ownership to membership will mean we can be better connected, more sustainable, and open up completely new possibilities.


*see also Beau Trincia’s Patterns post on the relationship between the web and new ways of using space