More by default than by grand design, I woke up one day with the realization that I had made the shift from individually owned assets to collaborative consumption. I wasn’t sure how I got here, but when I took the time to reflect on it, I liked what I saw.

Maybe we can blame it on the creative disruption of the past few years.   In 2011 I finally had to give up my office space and move to the kitchen table.  Once I cut the umbilical cord from the staff, library shelves, administrative assistant and (OMG $10,000 DELL server!) network, I found myself in the brave new world of a virtual office.  With the acquisition of a MacPro, ipad and a switch from Blackberry to iPhone, I found myself synced and ready to roll in relatively no time.  Mounds of data that used to reside in the big black box back at the office now fits in my briefcase, accessible anytime.  With most of my contacts and email residing in the Cloud, I could access anything I needed anytime, anywhere.  Suddenly I was working where I wanted – coffee shop one day, client’s office another, collaborative partner office on a third day.  When I needed a quiet day to work, I stayed at home, and when I needed inspiration, I’d try out a cool new coffee shop.

Recently, I needed a car for a long project site visit and decided to try out ZipCar.  I had been extolling the virtues of car sharing for years due to the impressive reduction in vehicles required (each car share takes about 16-23 cars out of the network), while the incredible flexibility allows people to select the means of transportation they want at that moment (am I moving a couch or taking a date to the beach?).  I booked my ZipCar, walked two blocks, picked it up and drove off.  A MINI Cooper last week, and an Audi A3 this week.  What a great experience.  ZipCar has done for the car rental experience what Apple has done for the retail electronics experience.  Fast, easy, no paperwork.  And no one trying to sell you $25 a day insurance, because if you have an accident you have to pay right then!  The reservation experience is filled with clever copy, an easy and intuitive interface, and a high tech/ high touch process that is just plain fun to be part of.  A month ago I read an article in Wall Street Journal which started off railing against the price Avis paid to acquire ZipCar.  But by the end of the article, the author conceded that ZipCar may in fact have been a bargain.  And one of the greatest value-adds he found?  ZipCar is just plain cool.  From the perspective of a new generation of auto users, the traditional Auto Rental business is a lumbering, painful, paper-filled process with poor service. As I found out, Zipcar is fast, painless and paperless, and just plain fun to be a part of.  So, yes…it is cool.

But my collaborative consumption didn’t stop with data, computers and cars.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, we sold our home in December.  And with an over-heated market bringing insanity to the rental market rates, we decided to wait out the bubble and go nomadic.  In April some friends of ours working in Hong Kong opened their home to us for a few months, as they needed someone to watch the place and administer a renovation underway.  Without a real home, we cut our hard line phone and utilize only our cell phones.  And while three years ago such a move would have been terribly disruptive to my business and sense of calm, my operations allows me in two short hours to get my business needs fully up and running without a hitch, and without an added $100 a month in hard phone and fax line costs.  I was feeling terribly agile, mobile and resilient – something I could not have imagined four years ago.

So what is virtual and what is reality?  My business is now in the cloud, or on a laptop at my coffee shop du jour.  My ‘fleet’ of transportation is diverse and customized to my needs – and I don’t have to find parking!  Our communications are now decoupled from the hardwiring of old.  My housing, while temporary, is shared among friends.

What does all this have to do with sustainability and the built environment?  For me it portends some very interesting futures.  Continued expansion of  ‘third places’ where people can work and socialize.  Enlivening neighborhood streets and clusters.  With someone else providing the social space, residences can be smaller – something we’re clearly seeing with projects like Patrick Kennedy’s ‘Smart Space’ in San Francisco.  And less need for land consuming, expensive parking in urban areas, because with lower number of ‘owned’ cars and more shared cars, each building can put more money into human space instead of auto space.  This is why we are seeing more municipalities establishing parking MAXIMUMS, not minimums.  And with all of this comes more flexibility in how people live.  Stop thinking primary homes and potentially more of a portfolio of shared homes –perhaps what AirBnB  or Destination Resorts has done with the overnight and second home market will migrate to the longer term, residency market.  And finally, more mobility, less hardware and less land consuming buildings and ‘stuff’ makes life much more streamlined, economical and sustainable.

While it’s still early in the age of collaborative sharing, I like what I am experiencing, and from what I am observing, this virtual thing may just be the new reality.