In lean economic times, alternative financial systems are sprouting up around the world. And now they come with a digital twist.
“The Greek state is completely absent,” says Katarina with a deep chuckle. We are standing across from each other inside a sweltering building on the outskirts of the Greek city of Volos, about 200 miles north of Athens on the Mediterranean. Both Katarina and her daughter, who stands beside her, have been unemployed for months. They are at this makeshift market to sell their array of homemade jams, pickled vegetables and liqueurs, which are spread out on the table between us.
But this isn’t a typical market. In fact, there isn’t a euro in sight. Katarina is part of a network of more than 500 people in Volos who are taking financial matters into their own hands as part of an alternative local currency, known here by its Greek acronym TEM.
“In the network, people can trade their goods and services,” says Christos Papaioannou, one of the network’s founders. “If I do a service for you, then you owe me a favor. And I can use that favor to get some service from someone else. So, we don’t have to exchange directly, I can get it from some third person.”
To be clear, there is no actual currency or scrip exchanged. Credits are tracked via an open-source community banking software system called Cyclos. Katarina, for example, banks her credits from selling jam to buy staple foods such as eggs and fresh vegetables that are offered through the network. Read more>>
British technologist Ken Banks wants to build apps to help those people do things like barter and time-swap.
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Lisa Mullins: Across Europe the economic crisis has many people scrambling to make ends meet. Their stories of ruin or near ruin caught the attention of a British technologist, Ken Banks.
Ken Banks: I was just seeing people having their lives trashed. You know, reading about people’s lives being destroyed and people losing their homes. Why should something that happens 10,000 miles away on a stock exchange lead to someone losing their job and their home.
Mullins: So Ken Banks decided to do something about it. He’s developing web-based and mobile apps that will help people engage in bartering, time swapping, even alternative currencies. The World’s Clark Boyd writes about Banks’s project in Clark’s latest column for the BBC’s Future website. Clark, first off, what is Ken Banks trying to build?
Clark Boyd: Well, first of all, he’s built out a website. It’s called Means Of Exchange. That’s the name of the project. That’s the name of the website, and the goal is as he moves forward to build a series of apps that communities and people around the world can kind of pick and choose from that will help people do things like bartering or time-swapping or that sort of thing.
Mullins: So there’s no currency that would be swapped under this plan at all?
Boyd: Oh no, not at all. Not at all. He wants everything based on the web, on mobile apps. He wants technological tools that will help people do these sorts of things much easier.
Mullins: And by the way, we should say that you saw bartering and alternative currencies in action during one of your reporting trips to Greece recently.
Boyd: Yeah, I was in Volos, Greece which is a town about 200 miles North of Athens, and they’re using an alternative currency there. Although it’s not really a currency, there’s no actual scrip or notes exchanged or coins or anything like that. It’s all done online through a database. Credits are sort of exchanged and people kind of buy and sell or trade their time that way.
Mullins: So in the case of this one women selling, I think, jam right?
Boyd: Yeah, she was selling jam in a marketplace. She sold the jam, she got credits for selling the jam. She would turn around and buy vegetables…
Mullins: From somebody else?
Boyd: Exactly, to feed her family.
Mullins: So is that the model for these apps that banks is…
Boyd: It’s one of the models. What he wants is to create a number of different tools to help people do these. That would be one of them, but he is very keen to say that he wants to develop sets of things that will allow people do a number of different things. So for example, he’s really taken with the idea of making these things fun and engaging because he told me, in the Greece example that I write about in the column, he says that’s a great example of people trying to get their local coumminity involved in doing something different and making a difference and trying to get out of this economic crisis. But, he said, he doesn’t think that these sorts of things are fun enough or engaging enough. So what he wants to do is, he’s really taken with this idea of cash mobbing.
Mullins: Like flash mobs, but different?
Boyd: Like flash mobs but different. So flash mobs would see a bunch of people sort of either through their mobile devices or online arranging to meet up and do a surprise aria in Copenhagen train station. Cash mobbing would be more like a group of people getting together and going to a local candystore maybe that’s suffering economical, and everybody spends five dollars on a bag of candy. So…
Mullins: And the word got out through the app.
Boyd: And the word got out through the app, and through facebook and twitter and bring social media into it and really get the word out. So he describes it as sort of economic progress by stealth. What you tap into is this need he sees for communities to come together again and support local businesses. The idea is, use the fun part to sort of drive the economics of it.
Mullins: So the apps themselves though, this has been done hasn’t it? I mean it doesn’t sound like it’s that unique. Maybe other apps aren’t quite as fun?
Boyd: There are some out there definitely. Think of a website like Freecycle, which allows you to say I’ve got a couch, I don’t want it anymore, I don’t even want to sell it but somebody out there could certainly use it. So you put it up on Freecycle and hopefully somebody comes by and says yes, I want it. It was actually somebody in the news room just came up and showed me an app she uses on her phone called Yardsale, which you know people are buying and selling things online and you have a process where you say no, I don’t want to give you fifteen for that I’ll give you ten… Of course there are websites like Craigslist and Ebay and things like this, but I think what Ken Banks is trying to do is really broaden this out a little bit, bring in things like twitter and facebook and really, you know, make it not just about the individual but make it about a community.
Mullins: The World’s Clark Boyd, thanks a lot and you can read Clark’s story about Ken Banks’ Means of Exchange project on our website, that’s TheWorld.org. Thanks again.
Boyd: You’re welcome.
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