Rethinking livelihoods.

This post appeared on the PopTech blog and has been republished with permission. You can read the original post here.

This post is co-authored by PopTech president Leetha Filderman, and Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net and FrontlineSMS. Together they are co-facilitators of the 2014 Bellagio/PopTech Fellows program. 

We are pleased to announce the 2014 class of Bellagio/PopTech Fellows, a diverse group of designers, social innovators, technologists and writers with expertise in technology, global health, poverty alleviation, environmental sustainability and informal sector economics.


Sean Blagsvedt, Alexice Tô-Camier, Dominic Muren, Robtel Neajai Pailey, Solomon Prakash

This year’s program is focused on rethinking livelihoods. Now more than ever, the world’s population is contending with a multitude of challenges: demographic shifts, environmental stressors, unrestrained financial capital flow, shifting political landscapes, emerging technologies, and changing economic growth patterns and labor markets – all of which are shaping the notion of what livelihoods look like today and may look like in the future.

For two weeks this August the Bellagio/PopTech Fellows will convene at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy. We will collaboratively work to define the notion of livelihood in the 21st century, while simultaneously exploring the challenges, opportunities and complex interdependencies that will impact sustainable livelihood achievement in the coming decades.

Our goal is to initiate a conversation designed to inform and inspire global, national and local efforts to improve livelihoods. Conversations will be complemented and challenged by an incredible group of catalysts, which bring a diverse and unique set of insights to the table.

Areas of exploration will include an examination of the central tenets of livelihoods strategy, the interplay between livelihood productivity at national and individual level, and the opportunities offered by the often-opposing formal and informal sectors. We’ll look at the positive and negative impacts of technology on livelihoods, and how both global security (and insecurity) and the geopolitical landscape impact sustainable development goals. It would be impossible to have this kind of discussion without recognition of the environmental challenges facing the planet, so we’ll be looking at how climate change and other threats could impact livelihoods development now and into the future.


Members of the 2013 class of Bellagio/PopTech Fellows presenting at PopTech 2013

Following their immersion at the Bellagio Center, the Bellagio/PopTech Fellows will reunite in Camden, Maine at PopTech 2014: Rebellion, where they will present their work and explore opportunities for collaboration with the global PopTech network.

About the Bellagio/PopTech Fellows program:
In 2012, PopTech and the Rockefeller Foundation created a joint Fellows program that brings together small, interdisciplinary groups for a two-week immersion program at the Foundation’s renowned Bellagio Center in Lake Como, Italy. Learn more about the inaugural class.

The Bellagio/PopTech Fellows program is designed to be a unique incubator of unconventional collaboration around critical topics relevant to the lives of poor and vulnerable populations, and also serves as a laboratory to study the nature of collaboration itself as a profound tool for creative problem solving and solution development.

Time to think message and motivation

Few companies succeed if they don’t take the time to understand their users. Fewer non-profit ventures succeed if they don’t either. After recently ‘moving on’ from FrontlineSMS and a ten year spell focusing exclusively on ICT4D, I’m beginning to realise that much of the wider technology-based social sector suffers from not-too-dissimilar problems. Few people, it seems, working on software-based solutions have much of an appreciation of the motives to engage, and the technical literacy, of their target audience. Whenever that’s the case, things tend not to turn out too well.

For the past few years I’ve been taking an increasing interest in economic resilience, particularly how technology could be applied to buffer local communities from global economic downturns. Ironically, since I started that research the world has entered a period of growing economic uncertainty. The causes – although fascinating – don’t so much interest me, more the response at local, grassroots level and the response from the social sector, particularly those turning to technology to provide some of the answers.

My Means of Exchange project particularly motivates me because it’s tasked with understanding what drives some local people (and not others) to resort to alternative methods of exchange, particularly during times of hardship, and explores how we might motivate the wider global community to adopt a healthier mix of exchange as a part of its daily lives – before things get bad. Money has become the dominate means of exchange in almost all of our lives, to the detriment of all the more creative, flexible methods that came before it.

In parallel with all of this is a growing interest in the sharing economy, and local and digital currencies which – if adopted widely enough – might just loosen the stranglehold of legal tender. And therein lies the problem. No matter how good the technology, solution or service, in almost all cases if it’s not adopted widely enough it’s unlikely to succeed. And one of the biggest problems many alternative exchange tools have is that they’re just not marketed or promoted well enough to reach anywhere near the tipping point they need. I talked a lot about the difficulties the local sustainability and alternative economy movements have in effectively communicating its message, and engaging their audience, in a recent ten minute talk at Pop!Tech.

Sadly, it’s an area that continues to be overlooked.

A couple of weeks ago, at the Bitcoin London Conference, BBC reporter Rory-Cellan Jones neatly highlighted the ongoing challenge:

In case you’ve not been following the discussion, Bitcoins are an independently machine-generated digital currency (i.e. not owned or managed by any country or entity) which some people believe will revolutionise global trade. Right now, the majority of people active in the Bitcoin world are programmers, developers and geeks, which is where many of these kinds of things start. The problem right now is the language of the movement is far too technical, and this is a problem. Even going to Wikipedia to get an explanation of Bitcoins would leave most of the general public scratching their heads:

Bitcoin (code: BTC) is a cryptocurrency where the creation and transfer of bitcoins is based on an open source cryptographic protocol that is independent of any central authority. Bitcoins can be transferred through a computer or smartphone without an intermediate financial institution.The concept was introduced in a 2008 paper by pseudonymous developer Satoshi Nakamoto, who called it a peer-to-peer, electronic cash system

There is already widespread misunderstanding of how new money is created, and clearly with Bitcoins – however good-an-alternative they may be – we’re not much better off. If shop keepers and the general public are to embrace such an idea and, let’s face it, they’ll have to for it to succeed, clearly some serious PR work needs to be done. (For a simple run-down of what the fuss is all about with Bitcoins, Bloomberg have a helpful feature here).

There is definitely a need for alternative means of exchange (note: plural), as I mentioned in an interview with Quartz recently. My belief is that a growing number of people worldwide have grown tired of being burned by globalisation and just want to get back to functioning within sustainable local systems. They need alternatives to cash, but just don’t realise it yet.

Because of the way our globalised world works (great when it does, rubbish when it doesn’t), hard-working people, and communities, are being destroyed by financial meltdown in distant places. Globalisation has eroded our incentives, and ability, to play well together as local communities, meaning we’re now less resilient to shocks of all kinds than we used to be

Everyone engaged in the alternative economy and local sustainability movement have already passed the ‘recognition threshold’ – recognition that the current system is broken to the detriment of people and planet everywhere, and that we need alternatives. But these people – me included – are in the minority. We might see how broken the system is, but we should never assume that it’s so obvious that everyone else ought to, too.

While we build the tools and, yes – the Bitcoins of the future – we need to seriously work on how we communicate. Conference gatherings have already become echo chambers for much of the ICT4D community. Whatever it is that makes people nod enthusiastically within the walls of alternative economy and sustainability events needs to first be simplified, and then communicated outside in an exciting, engaging way.

As my work over the years has taught me, technology is almost always the easy part. Behaviour change – that’s a totally different beast altogether.

Means of Exchange: Enabling more resilient economies

“Citizen movements are compelling reforms that were unimaginable only a short time ago. Solutions to today’s challenges involve a complex mix of actors that include governments, nonprofits, foundations, civil society and the business sector in major new ways”Rockefeller Foundation

This year, the Rockefeller Foundation will be one hundred years old. As part of the celebrations, the Foundation recently launched the Next Century Innovators Awards which seeks to identify the top 100 innovations likely to solve some of the more pressing challenges of the next century. We’re excited to announce that Means of Exchange has made the list. You can read the project profile on the Rockefeller website here, or below.

What is the innovation and how does it address a pressing problem?

We live in a time of great economic uncertainty. Millions of people around the world have lost jobs, homes, businesses, independence and purpose as a result of the current financial crisis, not to mention the many crises that came before it. Millions more face growing uncertainty. The defining feature of a century of globalization is an economic system few of us understand, and even fewer of us have any control over. Over the years the incentives and ability of communities to build resilient local economies has been gradually eroded, leaving us more vulnerable to global shocks.

At the same time, communities, often in the hardest-hit places, have begun independently developing initiatives to strengthen the capacity of local systems to meet local needs. Bartering exchanges, time-banking and buy-local movements exist in increasing numbers, yet they are by-and-large failing to result in systemic change.

Means of Exchange ties together these disparate initiatives, and shares stories of how local communities are fighting back. It looks at how a combination of everyday technologies and human ingenuity can democratize opportunities for economic self-sufficiency and promote a return to local resource use. Its online community brings people together, helps encourage new thinking, builds and scales the use of new tools, and takes a fresh look at the public messaging behind local economic empowerment schemes to make them more inclusive, simple, relevant, fun and engaging.

What existing practices inspired the innovation and how does it represent something new?

Local barter exchanges, time banks and local currencies are nothing new. Most have been around for years, and there are countless success stories out there if you look hard enough. The majority of these pockets of success have remained small in scale, and many only work because a small number of dedicated local activists work hard to keep them going. What’s more, the people that take part are often the ones who are already converted to the cause, or older members of a community already sympathetic to the local agenda.

Means of Exchange sets out to understand why so many existing initiatives fail to replicate and scale, building the community needed to bring in “new blood,” and bringing in the skills required to leverage digital tools that allow for meaningful scale.  The online community will highlight approaches it sees working, and tease out the factors that make them succeed. It will look at how social media and mobile technologies might strengthen these activities, explore gamification techniques, and consult experts to understand how activities should be branded and marketed for mass appeal.  And at the end, all of the tools, websites and resources developed by Means of Exchange will be openly shared on the website, encouraging further adoption and sharing.

Bringing this community together addresses a critical gap in the majority of current initiatives, giving Means of Exchange the potential to transform a set of isolated activities into an effective and organized movement.

Please describe the social impact to date, as well as potential impact in the future.

During the Summer Olympics in London, Means of Exchange launched its first ‘tool’ – CashMobbers.net – promoting a new and innovative way for people to support local business. Cash mobs are typically organized over social media, encouraging people to meet others at a predetermined local business at a predetermined time, where they all agree to spend a small amount of money.

In just a couple of hours during the launch event at a bookshop in Hackney, London, several dozen people showed up and helped the store hit its highest day of sales for a year. The buzz created by social media drove people to attend, partly out of excitement, partly out of curiosity, partly out of a desire to see something positive happen on their main shopping street. The event was picked up by the Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Huffington Post and other international media. Since then, regular cash mobs have started taking place across London and other parts of the UK as the idea spreads.

These are the kinds of ideas Means of Exchange seeks to help develop, promote and spread. Whether it’s supporting a local business, buying local goods, helping a neighbor or swapping unwanted goods, it’s crucial that the activities which drive and promote better sharing, support and co-operation are fun, bring in new people, make good use of new technology and serve to educate and inspire the wider community to action.

You can join us at Means of Exchange by signing up on the website, liking us on Facebook, or following us on Twitter.