Academic journal article Development and Society

The Sharing City Seoul: Global Imaginaries of the Sharing Economy and Its Local Realities

Academic journal article Development and Society

The Sharing City Seoul: Global Imaginaries of the Sharing Economy and Its Local Realities

Article excerpt

Introduction: "The First Sharing City"

In May 2016, Paris's Cabaret Sauvage was overrun with young entrepreneurs, activists, and academics who gathered for three days to participate in the OuiShare Fest, an annual gathering of enthusiasts of peer-to-peer collaboration and exchanges, which are often referred to as the sharing economy. First organized in 2013, the OuiShare Fest has been conceived as realizing "a global community ... to build a collaborative future" (OuiShare 2013). In 2016, two thousand attendees took in keynote speeches at the crowded main Circus, hopped among expert panels and workshops at four adjacent tents, and, during breaks, lined up for organic food supplied by local farmers and served by the festival's many volunteers. On the first day of the event, I joined a circle of about twenty participants for a workshop on the regulation of sharing and collaborative initiatives. It was drizzling, and we cosily crowded under the tent to leave no one in the rain. The workshop leader, Brhmie Balaram, a senior researcher at the Royal Society of Arts in the United Kingdom, handed each of us a different page-size picture. Every image represented a specific historical development, such as the 1920s farmers' movement in the United States, the rise of big retail stores in the 1990s, and the dot-com bubble of 1999. My picture was the Lehman Brothers logo, to signify the 2008 financial crisis. She invited us to sit ourselves in the chronological order of the events and collectively construct a history of the sharing economy. While participants struggled with historical events, the recent developments were easily explained.

One of the pictures was a photograph of Seoul mayor Park Won-soon (Pak Won-sun), the only portrait among the distributed images. It was given to an American entrepreneur in his late 20s, but he could not identify who the picture was of. Balaram stepped in to explain that that was the Seoul mayor who "created the first sharing city." In a couple of sentences she presented Seoul as a star of the sharing economy, noting approvingly that Seoul is "in the process of banning Uber" but supports local car-sharing services. She told us that Mayor Park's sharing program was recently announced the winner of the prestigious Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development. Throughout the three days of the festival, speakers at various sessions mentioned the Seoul mayor and his sharing projects in much the same way as Balaram had.

While the success of the Sharing City Seoul was definitely a part of the sharing community lore, only three people participated from South Korea-myself, and two businessmen, who, as I later learnt, were primarily interested in the uses of blockchain technology, one of the streams at the conference. This disconnect between Seoul's presence and absence captures the ambiguity of Seoul's leadership in the global sharing discourses-simultaneously widely recognized yet missing. This article unpacks this uncertain presence to offer insights about the sharing economy as a global phenomenon. I show that, although Seoul is considered the world's leader in the sharing economy, what goes under the rubric of sharing in South Korea matches the visions of Euro- American pundits only marginally and is better understood by situating the sharing projects within the local vested interests and civil-society politics.

My goal however is not to dethrone Seoul-after all, it was officially the first sharing city whatever the project meant on the ground. Rather, I am interested in drawing out what the transnational imagination of the Sharing City Seoul enables for the sharing economy as a set of global discourses and practices. As geographer Lizzie Richardson (2015) has argued, the sharing economy is paradoxical in how it is simultaneously an extension of capitalism and its alternative. For her, articulating this alternative is valuable, even if only as a performative disruption to neoliberal economic arrangements. …

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