For Sam Stephens, a 34-year-old entrepreneur from Fulham, this is a question that has become something of a raison d’être, and the heart of a new and flourishing business.
Streetbank, a website launched by Stephens in April 2010, was created with the express purpose of fostering community in London, and beyond.
The site, which now boasts 17,500 members in 30 countries, allows members to search for and share items that are either unwanted or seldom used, within a square mile from home, and Stephens believes the benefits are threefold.
First, there is the obvious economic benefit that comes from the free use of a possession belonging to another. Then there is the environmental aspect, a major driving force for Stephens that arises from his hatred of seeing things go to waste. (Stephens cites the example of an electric drill, which on average he says is used for less than 15 minutes in its entire lifetime).
Finally, there is the social element, and it is here Stephens sees the greatest challenge.
‘People are more isolated than ever before, they live more independently and they are actually quite fearful of their neighbourhoods,’ he says. ‘But people are good, by and large, and if we just know our neighbours a little bit, we would find that they’re not scary and that you can communicate with them. I really believe in the power of community.’
This belief in community leads on to the heart of Stephens’ vision for Streetbank, which is not only that it may serve as a tool for people to share their belongings, but that relationships may be built and community fostered.
There are early signs to suggest that it isn’t only Stephens who feels this way. Streetbank has grown in a little over 18 months from a network of friends in London to as far as Sydney, Australia and the Iranian capital city, Tehran.
Stephens acknowledges that there is scope for the system to be manipulated – for people to use the website as a place to accumulate freebies that they might then sell on, for example. However, he believes that even if such exploitation exists, the vast majority of interactions are positive.
Whether sharing garden shears or helping one another to find lost pets (or relatives), Stephens can reel off a whole string of examples where neighbours have in some sense had their faith in humanity restored.
Stephens has high hopes for the future. The website is boasting around 7 per cent growth per month and he hopes numbers will reach 100,000 by the end of next year and 500,000 the following year.
‘I want borrowing or re-using from your neighbour to become as usual as going to the shops,’ he says. ‘And I want to see people’s faith put back in humanity. Somebody said to me they were cynical about people and then they went to a Streetbank live event where people were giving things away and they said it put their faith back in humanity. I think that in a small way Streetbank is a tool that allows people to do that. It’s not Streetbank; it’s people being given a chance to be generous. Take away the obstacles and you find that people are in fact really quite generous.’