There has been a lot of talk about the rise of the sharing economy and its impact on not just our environmental footprint but also on building and strengthening relationships. In my exploration of this topic, I decided to send an email to the guys behind Blockpooling.sg, an online platform to facilitate resource sharing in an urban neighbourhood setting in Singapore to learn from their experiences.
In their own words, Blockpooling.sg is "the social network for awesome neighbourhoods". Signing up is straightforward and during that process, you will be asked to key in your postal code which will then be used to create your network. This process connects you to other neighbours on the network and allows the system to give you relevant content based on that information. Most recently, they also launched a new "Inform" tool that provides a means for residents to inform their neighbours on potential incoveniences such as a noisy renovation or a party, with the help of "pre-set courteous messages" which hopefully will not offend anyone.
My email exchange with Mr Moh Hon Meng, CEO of blockpooling.sg follows.
I see Blockpooling.sg as an entity that is founded in the belief of building resilient urban communities through promoting a sharing economy. What do you think of the state of resilience in Singapore's urban communities?
If a critical component of community resilience is a networked community, then we are quite far away. In Singapore, it's very C to G (Community to Government). Any thing we might need, we look to the government to provide. We don't think in terms of finding the solutions from each other.
“The sharing economy is a caring economy”. Your thoughts on this statement?
We (Blockpooling.sg) don't really think about the caring part. If a lot of people are sharing resources in the neighbourhood, then the question that confronts anyone needing something, like a ladder for example, is, do I borrow, or do I buy? With constraints in space, and high cost of living, buying may not make sense. Our role is just to facilitate that. 'Caring' would probably be a nice by-product as a result of the Sharing, but it's not really our place to say that.
By sharing, we don't just mean lending for free, although that is a part of it. Renting or selling are important parts. And it's not just household items, there are a lot of things that can be shared/rented/sold second hand - rides, time, effort, contacts, information, interests-related items etc. The more people share/rent/sell to each other these things in the neighbourhood, the more they get used to sourcing from their neighbours. This will build resilient communities.
In the ST article about blockpooling.sg, recruitment consultant, Tay Chiong Soon, said that though he has offered to share, there are no takers. Is this a common situation that users of Blockpooling.sg face? Why do you think such a situation exist?
A part of it is the low number of users we have currently, so the coincidence of someone with a need to be met with someone with a solution isn't there yet. We expect this to change as the numbers grow.
The reason might also be cultural and historical. We talk nostalgically about the neighbour in the 70s who was the only one in the block to own a TV and how he would share it with the rest of his neighbours by welcoming them to his home. It's a nice story, but the reality is that all the neighbours who didn't own a TV really wanted to have TVs of their own, so they told their kids to study hard to be able to afford their own. So we grew up with a very strong desire to be self-sufficient. To borrow is to somehow admit that you are "lower" in status. This is the situation now, but it might not be the situation in the future. Our future is one of scarce resources, high cost of living, crowded cities etc.
Also, "sharing" might not need to mean borrowing for free. Nobody is really thinking about that. The "sharing economy" is more about renting than pure, altruistic sharing. So if an individual can "rent" from his neighbour instead of buy, he might be quite happy to do so because he would save space, save money and save the environment and he doesn't feel like he is "lower" in status because he paid a fee for the use of the item. In our case, we want our users to pool. It's a cooperative stance. I am not "lower" in status than you. I contribute something I have and you contribute something you have, and both our lives are better off. But we are equals.
Tools like Facebook Groups/Whatsapp Groups/Twitter are already facilitating the coming together of residents from a block/neighbourhood. They are real-time, have high adoption rates and are rather robust tools. For example, I am about to move into a new HDB development only at the end of this month and yet, the FB group has been around for almost a year. Conversations are vibrant and we are already sharing information about the development, pooling resources and orders, organizing meet-ups, and doing almost everything that Blockpooling.sg claims to offer. So what is it that Blockpooling is offering that other tools cannot?
Yes, those are great tools to use to connect up quickly. But they are not specially created for the neighbourhood. Key constituents are not included, like retail shops, VWOs, service providers etc. Also, there are no tools for matching. For example, let's say you want to carpool with a neighbour, our system allows you to indicate your origination and destination points and will actually send you an email whenever there is a match with a neighbour.
So it's about thinking hard about how neighbours could connect to share resources and developing specialised tools for that. It's a bit like how LinkedIn has specialised tools for professionals to connect.
Blockpooling.sg is approaching two years old. In the ST article, you outlined how the website has had to rework some of its product offering over the year and also how you are considering merging it with ShareTransport.sg. Why do you think there is a marked difference in adoption rate for these platforms although both revolve around the idea of sharing?
ShareTransport.sg was started in 2011 and so it has been around longer. It's quite a complete website, as opposed to BlockPooling.sg which still missing key modules.
And what will be the key difference in these new modules/features that you are expecting to launch in 2015?
An important module to be launched is the "Services" module. It will allow neighbours with skills and time to offer services. This could range from housekeeping, tuition, car-washing, seamstressing, baby-sitting etc. We will emphasize services for which proximity and a high level of trust is important.
Most Singaporeans spend more than half their day at work, often at other parts of the island. How do you feel this affects our sense of meaning and attachment to the “local neighbourhood”?
We don't think about the attachment. It's about the stuff you need and proximity is important. You need a ride to work, you need to drill a hole to put up a picture, you need someone to clean your flat, you need a pet-sitter while you go on holiday etc.
You mentioned the idea of “hyperlocal” relevance as a key strategy for adverts at Blockpooling. What do you think is the advantage for the minimart at the neighborhood to buy an advert when he can print flyers and just distribute it in our mailboxes or at the lift lobby?
Flyers are expensive and there's very limited information you can put on it. You can't recruit followers, list items for sale, and maintain long term conversation threads with customers. You can't really form a "relationship" with your key customers with flyers.
Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.