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Economy / Jobs

Are umbrellas the next frontier in the sharing economy?

It was probably only a matter of time before the dreaded “sharing economy” spread beyond holiday homes and transport, and began to infect more domestic pursuits. Now a trio of students at British Columbia University in Vancouver have created UmbraCity: a start-up which allows students, faculty and members of the public to borrow an umbrella from a set of locations across campus.

It works, in other words, a bit like a cycle hire scheme, but with brollies. This could be pretty handy given the high levels of rainfall the city experiences throughout the year, especially during winter.

Here’s how it works. Once you’ve signed up online, or at one of the four kiosks currently in place, you can borrow an umbrella, free of charge, for up to 48 hours. If the umbrella isn’t returned to one of the kiosks within this period, the user’s credit card (registered during sign-up) is charged $2 for each overdue day, up to a maximum of $20.

In other words, if you return the umbrella on time, the service is effectively free. (As with so many optimistic start-ups, the company expects it’ll attain profitability through market share. Hmmm.)

An UmbraCity kiosk in action. Image: UmbraCity.

UmbraCity see this concept as a way of reducing the overall number of umbrellas needed in society, and living in a more environmentally friendly way. In fact, the company also recycles broken umbrellas into shopping bags.

Co-founder Amir Entezari told Tech Insider, “The proprietary technology behind UmbraCity can be used for various objects.” So it is that, as the company looks to expand its number of kiosks, it also hopes to lend out other everyday essentials such as helmets and phone chargers in the future.


The idea of sharing umbrellas is not a unique one. Taito arcades in Japan have long offered free umbrellas for customers to borrow and DyDo, a beverage company based in Osaka, has added umbrellas to their vending machines. These are completely free and based on a system of trust:  users return the umbrellas once they no longer need one.

Both have adopted the practice found in Kinosaki, in the southern Hyōgo region of Japan, whereby visitors can use the freely available umbrellas when they need them. The system is maintained through donations via the collection boxes.

Given the explosion of businesses based on sharing in recent years, we can probably expect a similar start-up coming to the UK at some point. Just keep an eye out for an umbrella-stuffed kiosk during your commute.

Emad Ahmed is a science report for our sister site, the New Statesman.
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