Network-inspired solutions to resource management

I recently had the opportunity to make use of a service called Car2Go in Vienna. This prompted some thoughts on ways that getting inspiration from certain network-architectures may be very useful in everyday life.

Car2Go is basically a short-term car-rental service launched by Daimler in 2011. Users sign up for a lifetime membership and get access to a fleet of Smarts (approximately 400 in Vienna, with plans to expand to 600 soon) after which trips in the cars are billed per minute, hour or day, depending on the duration of the rental. The most impressive feature, and what sets it apart from other car sharing services such as Zipcar, was that you need not return the car to where you found it, any legal parking spot will do.  Wherever you are, nearby available cars are easy to locate through the designated app.

Car2Go (and similar services) may be to auto-mobile ownership what cloud computing can be to desktop computer ownership. Instead of needing a lot of computing power to run applications and computations on your desktop, cloud computing enables you do a lot of the same things with a relatively cheap device that is capable of connecting to the “cloud”. This allows for much greater mobility (as you only need an internet connection), an increase in reliability and efficiency and a resulting reduction in costs. Analogously, Car2Go provides the same relatively low entry cost of an application fee and an internet connection, a similar increase in mobility (cars can be picked up and left at any location), an increase in efficiency (various studies show traditionally owned vehicles are parked for 90-95% of the time) and a corresponding reduction in costs. This made me wonder whether there are other ideas about resource sharing in computer networks that are applicable to “real-world” resources.

Two closely related ideas are volunteer and/or grid computing, and peer-to-peer networking. Volunteer and grid computing is a from of distributed computing based on the idea that there are enough idle machine cycles available on reasonably sized computer networks to facilitate computations much, much, larger than any of the individual devices connected to the network are capable of (it is basically based on the computing version of the car that is parked 95% of the time). Peer-to-peer networks introduce a form of networking that removes the server and central control of data and instead relies on every participant/node to be both a supplier and consumer of data and resources. Home sharing services like airbnb (or those seen in the movie ‘The Holiday’) and car sharing ones like RelayRides are good examples of companies based on these ideas (and fit in nicely with the travel theme).

Together, these ideas that current resources are enough to accomplish most goals without large additional capital expenditure and that it is possible to provide services without clear central control may just be very powerful social and environmental tools.

Even if applied on a large scale to only the automotive industry, it has the potential to decrease the cost of having access to a car and will lead to cities with less congestion, pollution and dead spaces (a recent study shows that the ‘well-being’ of a city is inversely proportional to the amount of space taken up by cars) and an overall reduced load on the environment for new resources, as existing ones will finally be utilized more efficiently instead of just continuing to add capacity. However, I believe there are other areas of our daily lives that will benefit as much, if not more, from these ideas. Most office buildings, for example, are abandoned at least 12 hours out of every day, a gross inefficiency that, if eradicated, will instantly double the available number of offices in any city and significantly improve most modern skylines (in fact, moving towards a true 24-hour day should solve a number of problems) – something that is finally starting to be addressed by solutions like LiquidSpace.

The obstacles to large-scale real-life resource sharing are perhaps more daunting to overcome that that of its network-based ancestors, as it is based on issues of trust that may not be resolvable by network protocols, but perhaps the potential benefits to us and our environment will make the investment worthwhile.

What do you think, are there other opportunities for largely-decentralised resource sharing that we have been missing as a society? What do you think the effects of this would be in South Africa, where there is a rather large gap between the rich and poor?


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